Is College Worth the Money? Part 1

That calculus class was tough!

How to Make College Worth the Money

College is worth it but the game has changed dramatically. To get good value for all that money, you have think about life after college before you go. If your only metric is future earning potential, be careful, this approach is shortsighted and it’s getting a lot of people into trouble after they graduate. If you’re more concerned with having a career you’ll thrive and excel in, colleges are not delivering much value at all . . . unless you take matters into your own hands. 

Commencement speeches have been more like a wake up call the last few years. Parents and students are listening intently, rightly concerned whether college is really worth the investment. 

In a just published Pew Research Survey; nearly 60% of Americans say the money spent on a college education is a “poor” to “fair” value. Another 35% rate is as only “good,” while just 5% say it’s “excellent.”  If I were the dean of a college, I’d be very nervous.

A perfect storm of events has given us the guts to question the real value of college. The price of college is exorbitant, while the great recession has put a serious dent in the availability of good paying, challenging jobs.

Competition for entry-level professional positions is fierce. Practically overnight the number of jobs for college grads has shrunk to half of what it was 7 years ago. The classes of 2006 and 2007 were indicative of the pre-recession economy: 90 percent of college grads got a job.  Since the financial and housing bubbles burst, 80 percent of 2008 and 2009 grads got a job and just 56 percent of 2010 grads found a job. About half (52 percent) of recent graduates have jobs that require a college education, and 40 percent have settled for jobs that don’t require a college degree at all.  (see WorkTrends study)

Some of the dour mood is no doubt in response to the immediate realities of the recession. But, what’s more interesting is that we’re now questioning a long-held ideal: that college is the “only” way to a better life.

If it takes one of biggest economic nosedives of the century to look deeper at what it means to be successful, so be it. The looming problem with college has been coming to a head over the last three or four decades. Suddenly, it is registering that the “go to college” success formula isn’t working as well as it used to.

is college worth the money?

Fifty years ago, having a college degree of any kind was a huge advantage. As more and more kids went off to college over the last half-century, the game changed into a race to get into the “best” colleges.

Colleges responded in the same way the big automakers did before they had to worry about quality: they got bigger and flashier and cranked out mass quantity. Students and their parents got lured by the big name schools, cool amenities and trendy degrees and never got around to asking the right questions.

Students entering college weren’t very precise about choosing a major; they didn’t have to be, jobs were more abundant and expectations to have a “meaningful career” didn’t exist yet.

The world is different today, but the mindset of getting into a good college and “things will work themselves out later” still rules the decision-making process. Fully three-quarters of recent college grads say they would do things differently if they could do college all over again. Half of these say they would have been more careful choosing a major, or would have chosen a different major.

A randomly chosen, ill-suited major used to be workable, but it isn’t tenable anymore. There’s not enough of a slop factor left in the economy for grads to job hop through their twenties to try different things, figure out who they are and carve out their career paths.

When it comes to hiring, companies are much more selective and are looking for young people with a firm sense of what they stand for. Gone are the days when companies hired people as blank slates to be molded into something. To compete for the most interesting jobs in innovative companies, you have to know what your innate strengths are and be able to talk shop in your field, if not show a portfolio of how you eat, sleep and drink your area of expertise.

For instance, I regularly help recent college grads with making significant career changes into new fields. They have expensive $100K+ degrees from Ivy League schools. However, the brand name only took them so far. Some are dumbfounded; they did all the right things and yet they’re unhappy. Others feel guilty; they are not excelling and have no real sense of direction. They’re smart and well spoken, but they can’t get momentum or get their foot in the door to more creative work because they’re not into what they’re doing. These grads played the success formula well and landed high status jobs, but within just a few years they hit a wall and lost their enthusiasm.

The bottom line, most grads don’t know what their strengths are, or even how to begin their exploration to find what they’re truly cut out for. In taking on one of the most important journeys in life, they set out without a map and compass. They don’t teach how to make smart career choices in college, no matter how much you pay for it. On this point, colleges get an F; they fail miserably in guiding students in choosing a well-suited career fit.

college student_game change

Lots of very well groomed, upper-middle class grads from top schools are living in their parent’s basements, most are clueless about what really want or how to get things moving. Some work odd jobs or dead-end internships for little to no money. Many of those lucky enough to have real jobs (that require a college education) are having a quarter-life crisis; they discovered, too late and in deep in debt that they fell onto a career path that is way far afield from their natural talents. Without solid bearings on where they fit, they take stabs at anything, thinking that the more résumés they send the better.

But the game has changed; it’s now clarity over quantity. To stand out in this economy, you have to have a clear focus about the difference you want to make and why, and have already done projects (often for free) to demonstrate your abilities and commitment. Bill Gates logged 10,000+ hours of computer programming before he went to college.

On top of a glut of college grads, the flattening of the global economy has leveled the playing field. And the prospects look even gloomier in the near future as baby boomers rethink retirement, they can’t afford to bail out and open up jobs for the next generation.

Even in a good economy, a college education is no longer a major advantage. Without a clear sense of direction, it’s doubly difficult to land a job. The grads that have the edge today are more mature and self aware—they’re thinking bigger and have perspective on how they want to make a contribution—during college. By the time they graduate they already have mentors and connections in the inner circle of the field they’re pursuing.

The actual return on a college investment is more evident 10 to 15 years down the road, when it becomes apparent to 70 percent of mid-career professionals that their earliest educational and career choices set a course for a career that isn’t panning out. Although some are financially comfortable, they don’t consider themselves to be successful in ways that personally matter, some struggle to excel, and others are unable to sustain even an average performance in their field. Mid-career professionals from top 10 schools routinely tell me that they can’t believe they let their 18-year-old selves steer their life. “What was I thinking?!”  Over the long-run, where it counts, many professionals rate the value of their college education quite low. (See State of the Global Workplace, a Gallup report: 2 out of 3 professionals are disengaged, not using their natural talents.)

Some of the underlying problem can be traced back to senior year of high school, where we expect teenagers who don’t know themselves well enough to make very important life choices. Most are not ready for college because they don’t know what they want yet, and this is mainly because they don’t know what they’re best at.

Colleges will not admit (even to themselves) that thousands of students, year after year, for decades, are cranking through the system to get degrees they’ll never use (or even want to use). This is not a new problem, it just more obvious now. Should colleges change their missions and curriculums to guide students to make smarter career decisions? Only if parents and students demand it.

In the foreseeable future, a college education will still give you a leg up financially. But, to get long-term value for the big money invested, you’ll have to be much smarter about it.

In part 2 of this article, How to Make College Worth The Money?, we’ll look at some smart steps you can take to make college worth the money.

Anthony Spadafore is the senior career consultant at and co-author of “Now What?: The Young Person’s Guide to Choosing the Perfect Career.”

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