The cost-benefit analysis of higher education
Shortly after graduating law school, a dear friend from law school told me he’d encourage his future kids to go to trade school. At the time, I was shocked by the idea of not encouraging one’s offspring to obtain a higher education, which I then perceived as one key indicator of success.
Today I understand. As I set aside money for my own son’s future, I, too, hope he will use that money for trade school or investment in a business versus sinking it into an education apt to be far more costly than it is beneficial.
When I signed up for six figures of initial debt for law school, I did so understanding only abstractly the costs of that choice. Now, at the age of 33, I can look back on eight years post-graduation and see the very concrete, very unfriendly impacts of that choice. Paying the principal itself is hard enough these days, though I make sure to pay extra in principal every month despite this.
But wait! There’s more! Every time I look at the interest I’ve paid so far, I want to reach back in time and shake some sense into my 22-year-old self. “I know you think it’s gonna be worth it and that it’ll be a breeze to pay it off, but don’t only think about what you’ll have–namely, a J.D. from a great institution. Think also about what you won’t be able to have as a result of all this debt you’re about to take on! Think of the interest you’re going to have to pay!” I have already paid in education loan interest alone an amount that could easily have been a down payment on a house.
And, oh! A house! Once the thought of my own house was an appealing one, but today the thought of adding hundreds of thousands of dollars of debt for another “investment” that might or might not pay off in the long run is far from appealing.
Before I started talking to friends and reading blogs about the impact of costly higher education choices, I figured I’d simply made a poor decision borne of youthful idealism. After reading about the staggering number of other people whose education debts will be with them for 20-30 years, I see that my decision was not so unique.
I see also that I can’t unmake it. I can’t really go back in time and advise my 22-year-old self to avoid inescapable, enormous debt in favor of working her way up through the ranks in a field she loves, helping her see the merits of being able to maneuver through her future without that cubic buttload of debt. If I could, I’d help her see the cost of the education she was choosing–the exceedingly steep one that every single other choice she made for decades to come (longer than the span of her life so far!)–would be defined by that one choice and I’d invest as much time as necessary for her to finally run fast and run far from a future of that burden.
22-year-old Deb’s choices are made, but what I can do is talk to the younger generation about the cost of education. I can urge its members to make their educational decisions understanding that the merits of a degree are limited while, conversely, the ways that the cost of that education might shape their decision in years, even decades, to come are limitless.
Future college students, before you sign on the dotted lines, please ask yourself if what you’ll be paying for this choice for many years to come is worth it. Ask yourself, “Is there a way to get where I want to go without sinking a hefty portion of my future earnings into it, and limiting my future career choices to ones that’ll allow me to pay off those debts?” If you’ve known what you wanted to do from the time you were four and a degree is required, the benefits are likely well worth the cost. If tuition is inexpensive enough that you can pay it off within a few years or you’ve gotten full or sizable scholarships, hurrah! Make the most of it!
If, however, you’re not absolutely certain what you want to be doing twenty years after you graduate, or you believe you can make another way for yourself (and you can! a degree isn’t a magical key to success), or you’re downright squeamish about the prospect of paying hundreds of dollars monthly for decades after you graduate, please seriously consider just saying no.
In the end, a degree really is but a piece of paper, no matter how reputable the institution from which it’s issued. It might help set you on a course, but that is all it will do. The choices you make day in and day out will be what truly defines the future ahead of you, not a piece of paper or the classes you took to obtain it.
I was advised, but failed to heed the advice. My mom’s long-ago divorce attorney took me out for lunch when I graduated from college. I was surprised by his consternation when I told him I’d be going to law school, inspired originally by want to be for other kids what he was to me. “You don’t have to do it just to prove you can do it, Deborah. Everyone else knows you’re smart enough. Figure that out the way everyone else already has and choose something you really want to be doing. Work your way up.”
Back then, I waved him off. “There’s so much more to it than that!”
But hindsight is 20/20, and it’s easy to see from here how right he was. I believed that piece of paper would prove my worth to me, an objective I then perceived worth a great deal of money . . . especially if it came with the promise of solid paychecks to come!
It wasn’t that paper, or the steps that preceded it, that eventually earned me my self worth or my paychecks. It was the sum total of a thousand later choices that helped me earn these things.
Good choices will pave your way. So when you’re considering that dotted line, ask yourself, “Is this education worth all its costs to future me?”
Please do your best to choose wisely not only for today, but for several thousand tomorrows.