Education cost

piggy bank over some colorful books (isolated on white)

Comedian John Mulaney describes his English degree as a “certificate for reading books that I didn’t read” and points out that he agreed to spend $120,000 on tuition at age 17 “with no attorney present.”

His audience roars with laughter.

Most of us experienced similar bewilderment at our college choices during those long days of sitting in uncomfortable chairs followed by consecutive nights of studying until dawn.

Financial advice for college usually includes tax, savings and borrowing strategies. Charts and graphs are based on the assumption that college will be a direct path to a degree in a standard four years, followed swiftly by a well-paying career.

But that’s not always the case. Let’s break down these assumptions.

A well-paying career: Some careers simply do not pay well and some careers (such as comedy) pay very well for a select few, while most struggle to survive.

A direct path in a standard four years: In the United States, only 60 percent of students who began seeking a bachelor’s degree at a four-year institution will have a bachelor’s degree from that same institution within six years. For many of us, the journey through college was a winding road that included blind alleys and hairpin turns. The weaving path can be a large hidden cost of college that does not appear in any of the pretty brochures or websites.

What steps can parents and students take to straighten out the path and make college a smarter financial investment?

Parents: Step back from the brochures and honestly assess your expectations. Expect your student to do the research and explain his or her college plan.

Students: Step back from the screen and honestly assess your expectations. Will the work I need to do to earn my degree be worth the money, effort and time? Have I considered the challenges to expect and have I developed strategies for moving forward?

There is no substitute for engaging all five senses. When your student is in elementary and junior high school, visit college campuses on weekends when it is quiet. Encourage career exploration and share your experiences, both good and challenging.

When your student is ready for college, visit on weekdays when classes are in session. Engage real students. Feel the sound and smell of a normal day.

John Mulaney’s much-mocked bachelor’s degree in English from Georgetown now shares shelf space with his Writers Guild, Peabody and Emmy awards. 

Rudy Valdivia is a senior accountant with Brown Armstrong Accountancy Corp. He can be reached at 661-324-4971. The views expressed are his own.

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