USA Today today has an article article (sorry) entitled “In a recession, is college worth it?” It mentions an oft-cited but apparently urban-legend-quality statistic that college graduates earn an extra $1 million over their lifetimes. The article says a better figure, supplied by the College Board, is $450,000, but the College Board itself, at least on one page I found, says the difference is 800K.
I’m not a big fan of the College Board, for reasons I’ll go into some other time, but in any case these figures seem pretty close to meaningless. Most glaringly, they are a textbook case of correlation-not-cause. While it’s doubtless true that person X with a degree will tend to earn more than person X without one, the kids who do go to college are by and large the bright kids from well-to-do homes. Guess what? People like that tend to make more money.
Beyond that, going to college is about so much more—for good and ill—than maximizing your earnings potential. The ill part includes social and parental expectation, coasting through the whole thing as an extension of of high school with no parents and more partying, and delaying the inevitable moment when you have to make a living. The good part is all about discovery. At college, you can learn about your passions, your taste, your personality, and the way you fit into the world; you can master an academic discipline and, yes, sometimes some honest-to-god marketable skills.
All this is a luxury, and it’s not for everybody. Lizy and Maria can speak for themselves, and I know it’s not all a cakewalk, but I get the impression that from day one, they have appreciated and relished this opportunity. We were smart enough to start saving early, and lucky enough that Swarthmore (Gigi’s employer) gives the people who work there a pretty generous tuition stipend. (Not a cent from U. Of Delaware, however.) We also got some good results from Pennsylvania’s 529 Guaranteed Savings Plan–not that I’ll ever completely understand what they mean by “guaranteed” or what it means that our returns are tied to tuition rates at the University of Pittsburgh.
Anyway, long story short, our kids didn’t have to borrow money for college, and we didn’t have to, either. If that weren’t the case, I would probably see things differently, but it is the case, and so the answer to the question up top is: