What Are You Paying For?

As you think about going off to college, think about what it’s going to cost you — not just in money but also in time and other opportunities. Tuition costs at private colleges and universities have been going up much more than the national inflation rate:

college tuition analysis

In the last 30 or so years, the cost of privately funded higher education has gone up more than double the basket of goods that go into the consumer price index. If you go to a school like Harvard and have to take out loans for tuition, room, and board, you’re looking at debt of $200k — that’s a decent house in many markets.

So what do you get for that amount of money? Unless you are passionate about some discipline and want to get into it as deeply as possible (for example, you know that you’re going to be working on a PhD in molecular biology), the actual learning you do and take with you will probably be minimal. Socialization and making contacts for future employment will probably be the main thing you get out of school.

State schools, as you can see from the above diagram, are a lot cheaper, being subsidized by your tax dollars. But even so, you’re talking lots of debt, and perhaps more than top┬áprivate schools, which tend to have lots of money for students from less affluent families.

But even if you can keep the monetary cost way down, you need to ask yourself whether the investment in time is worth it. A bachelor’s degree typically involves four years of study. What could you be doing in those four years instead? Peter Thiel, founder of PayPal and an early investor in Facebook (he was portrayed in the film Social Network) is so disillusioned with higher education that he’s offering bright potential entrepreneurs $100k to forgo college and start a business (see here).

Thiel is a contrarian and his dismissal of higher education will probably not catch on. But before you apply to college think through what you are giving up to go to college and what you really want to do with your life.

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