This spring I found myself on beautiful college campuses going on tours with my two high school aged kids. The tour guides are invariably interesting and happy. They all want you to know why their school is the best. The campuses are beautiful, the food gourmet, and the professors are guaranteed to be fabulous. Lurking behind these idyllic moments are statistics that show how hard it is to get into top schools (it’s as low as a 7% acceptance rate at some1) and costs that are staggering (in the range of $60,000 per year2 at many).
Wandering near the sushi bar and specialty teas in the cafeteria, you start to wonder if it’s all worth it. A college degree is definitely worth it. The lifetime earnings of a person with a college degree is over half a million dollars more than a person with a high school degree only. A graduate degree increases the earnings difference to a million dollars over a lifetime.3
The more I look at this (and I’m looking a lot with two kids headed to college in the next several years), it starts to look like a game. How do you get a college degree without going into crippling debt in the process? In fact, is there a way to get it without any debt at all?
There are a lot of variables but here is what I see when I simplify it down:
- Save in advance if you can: That’s not always possible but I’m a big fan of tax favored college savings vehicles like 529 plans and any other way you can set a few dollars aside and let it grow in the years before a child enters college.
- Scholarships: There are special websites and apps that help find things you might not have thought of. Take advantage of whatever you can find.
- Brand name: Only you and your student can decide which school is best but beware of buying the argument that a more expensive, exclusive college is going to lead to a better life post-college. If it’s going to lead to more debt, consider long and hard. It’s hard to place a value on an education at different schools but it’s easy to place a value on $60,000 in debt for a 30 year-old wanting to buy a house and get started in life.
It’s kind of like a game. There are ways to get a degree without enormous debt. It’s not always easy and it’s rarely with a brand name college but it’s worth it to the graduate who has the flexibility to start their adult life without worrying about debt to pay off.
Congratulations to all the students about to graduate. May you find fulfilling careers and a successful financial life!
1 usnews.com/best-colleges/rankings/lowest-acceptance-rate 
2 studentloans.net/average-cost-of-college/ [9/11/2018]
3 ssa.gov/policy/docs/research-summaries/education-earnings.html [Nov 2015]