How to Pay for College

Is College Worth It?

“Is College Worth It?” That question used to be a “no brainer.”

If anyone even asked such a question, the answer encompassed not just financial return on investment, but a keener intellect, a broadened worldview, a more fulfilling career, and enhanced social prospects.

But that was before ...

Rising costs and mounting student debt are causing families to weigh college options more carefully. 

Two experts who agree that students must weigh their options more carefully than ever before are Rich DeMillo, director of Georgia Tech’s Center for 21st Century Universities (C21U) and author of Abelard to Apple: The Fate of American Colleges and Universities, and Jeff Selingo, a recent visiting scholar at C21U who is former editor at large of the Chronicle of Higher Education and author of College (Un)bound: The Future of Higher Education and What It Means for Students and There Is Life After College: Navigating Your Time in School So You Are Prepared for the Jobs of Tomorrow, due out in April 2016.

They think students who are fixated on a particular dream school may need a wake-up call, and those who plan to take out big loans might need a reality check instead.

Students are encouraged to look at fit as well as finances in choosing a college and major.

How much debt is manageable vs. the limitations graduates face when burdened with too much student debt.

“The first question I think parents and students should consider is, how much can we really afford,” Selingo said.

“And also to look at a range of institutions — publics, privates, two years, four years, so that your whole emotional state is not set on one institution, or even one type of institution.”

Selingo and DeMillo both subscribe to the rule of thumb that students should not amass more total debt than the annual starting salary they anticipate upon graduating. 

Too much debt, Selingo warned, can have consequences beyond the struggle to repay.

“Talking to recent college graduates, I’m amazed at the students who have a lot of options after college,” he said.

“They could move to different cities … take different kinds of jobs … become entrepreneurs because they have one thing not hanging over them, and that was a big debt.”

There’s no one-size-fits-all prescription for avoiding unmanageable debt, but both experts advocate that, before students start taking out loans, they consider nontraditional routes such as taking a “gap” year or two after high school, enrolling in online courses, or attending community college. 

“Most of the world sends kids to college close to home,” DeMillo said.

“We’re the place that seems to have fixed on this idea that you have to go 1,000 miles away and pay nonresidential tuition and dorm fees in order to get that start.”

The Deciding Advantage

As for how college-bound students should go about picking a major, Selingo has this advice: Don’t.


Experiences, opportunities, and relationships rival earnings potential when it comes to assessing higher ed options.

Despite rising costs, the data is in and the consensus is yes, college is worth it … but it’s a qualified yes, with individual students as the deciding factor.

Between 40 and 50 percent of students switch their majors by the end of sophomore year, Selingo noted.

“You should pick an institution first and worry about your major later,” he said.

Also, he advises against choosing a major based on earning potential.

“If you don’t have a passion about it,” he said, “you’re not going to do well enough in that career field to make as much money as people say they make.”

What’s hard for some high achievers to resist, DeMillo said, is the allure of the elite institution, regardless of cost or scholarship availability.

DeMillo and Selingo agree that selective institutions with challenging programs offer a number of advantages when it comes to college return on investment, but they stress that where a student goes is not the deciding advantage in their success.

“It turns out that if you have a son or daughter with high aspiration … regardless of which place they go to, if they do well, they’re going to do well in later life,” DeMillo said. 

For more information on topics related to paying for college, please visit How to Pay for College.


Writer: Margaret Tate
Videos:  Adam Karcz