The Real Cost of College

Cost and Benefits of a College Degree

Every year our seniors graduate high school, wait a few months, and then go right back to school. Except this time, it’s a little different. Everyone’s a little older, the classes are slightly more complicated, and they’re told that this is the education that’s going to count. This is the education they’ve been training for over the past twelve years.

Two college students discussing in front of university

And they’re told over and over by all the authority figures in their lives, mostly parents and teachers, that college is the path to becoming a successful professional, at whatever they’re interested in, and it’s key to bringing in a paycheck that can support them financially.

But I think it’s clear that our teens are not being told the full story about the costs and benefits of a college degree… Which hinders them from making a wise decision for their post-high school lives.

In 2010 the average starting salary for students graduating from four year colleges was $27,000, and the average college student graduates $20,000 in debt.

I don’t like the sound of those numbers. But you know what’s worse? In 2010, 21% of all customer service representatives in the United States had a college degree, that’s over 400,000 people.

I think it’s pretty clear that even if you do get a college degree, it won’t guarantee you a career in the field of your choice, or a high-paying job.

College costs money, everyone knows this. And for most people it’s going to cost more money than they actually have. Money they have to borrow and pay back later. That’s a given. Most teens know that. But do they know those other facts I just showed you?

I’m willing to bet a lot of them don’t.

And if you and your teen do a little research you’ll find that college degrees aren’t as valuable as they used to be. It’s become a high-risk, uncertain-reward undertaking.

A survey of 2,300 undergraduates found that 45% of those surveyed had shown no significant intellectual improvement.
Considering how much those kids paid to go to college, do you think they got their money’s worth?

If your teen is interested in something that absolutely requires a degree, then maybe it’s the place for them to be. But I would recommend exploring other options before diving head-first into picking a major and signing those loan documents.

As parents and mentors, we need to letting teens trust their own judgement and not plan out their lives for them. And to make sure that as we see the world changing around us, we adjust our minds accordingly. We need to be willing to take in new information without prejudice.

And remember: the future belongs to them, not us.

In my next blog post I’m going to talk about a few college alternatives that smart teens can explore, and see for themselves what works best for them.

Blog post #2 Growing College Alternatives

If you read my previous blog post on some of the hidden costs and potential downsides of college, you’ll know that the cost of college tuition is going up. And as it rises, college is going to become less accessible to a lot of people, and not as enticing as it used to be.

Your teen shouldn’t be asking the question “Do I want to go to college?” as much as “What do I want to do? What excites me right now?” and then go from there. If they’re interested in a subject, what would be more cost and learning effective, attending college for two to four years? Or self-directed learning at their own pace?

So for teens whose parents who have limited income, or aren’t sure they want to go thousands of dollars into debt for a college degree, what are the options?

First things first, what does your teen want to do? What subject excites them? Photography? Math? Psychology? Coding? It doesn’t need to be an academic subject, it could be hiking in the wilderness, repairing bicycles…Whatever it is, it needs to be something that they are passionate about. That’s important.

Next comes learning about that passion, or furthering what they already know. You can easily find free resources on almost  any topic you can imagine online.

But online learning doesn’t replace real-world experience, or a quality teacher. That’s why they should seek out other people with similar interests, take a class, or find a mentor, someone who wants to pass on their knowledge and is eager to teach young people.

If your teen is really interested in a subject, you can also look for schools that specialize in it.

And the single most helpful thing they can do while engaging in this self-directed learning process is documenting their progress and setting goals/stakes.

In math class we all learned that the answer wasn’t as always important as the steps we took to get that answer. Our teachers always told us: “Show your work”. And thats what your teen needs to do on their learning journey.

They need to be able to show other people what they can do, how they do it, and why they love doing it. They’re entering into a world where the quality of work you do matters just as much, if not more, than a college degree.

If they love to work on bicycles and want a job at a bike shop, what better way to get that job than to show the hiring manager a blog dating back months with all the projects they’ve worked on?

Who do you think that hiring manager is going to want working for them?

That’s just one example, but it can work with any subject your teen is interested in.

I know a lot of parents are going to feel skeptical about something like this. But think about it this way: What’s that first year of college going to cost your teen? $5,000? $10,000? More?

What would a year of self-directed learning cost them, if they took a part-time job, and lived with you while they did so? The answer is: not nearly as much as a full year of college would.

The cost is low, and the potential benefit can be very high. I’d recommend trying it, at least for a little while.

Sending Your Teen to College

If you’re wanting to talk more about sending your teen off to college, or alternate educational paths, I offer a free 15 minute discovery session where I can offer advice, guidance, and a shoulder to lean on. 🙂

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Need to talk to someone about your teen? Take a moment to speak with me personally on a 100% FREE Personal Discovery Session.

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Debra BeckDebra Beck is a devoted mother, sought-after presenter, author, and has spent over 20 years working with teens and their parents. She’s helped thousands of teen girls develop their self-esteem through her blog, one-on-one mentoring sessions, and mother-daughter retreats.

Her award-winning book My Feet Aren’t Ugly: A Girl’s Guide to Loving Herself was revised and updated for re-release in September 2011 with Beaufort Books.


  1. Totally agree with you on all this!!! Thank you for giving other parents a new perspective.

    ~ Sally

  2. Oh my goodness! an incredible article dude. Thank you Nevertheless I’m experiencing subject with ur rss . Don’t know why Unable to subscribe to it. Is there anyone getting similar rss drawback? Anybody who is aware of kindly respond. Thnkx

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