What is college for?

When you’re considering a $250,000+ investment for higher education it might help to step back and think: what is college for?

Often, both families and students are placed on a K-College conveyor belt without much thoughtful consideration of where they would like to end up and why. The stress of determining where and why can also be small compared to the even bigger and more stressful financial question of how to finance this all.

NYT Author Ron Lieber’s new book What You Pay For College highlights three core goals that students and families seek to accomplish in varying degree by going to college.

Firstly, college is a credential. It is evidence of your compliance to a famous name brand institution that is going to secure your family’s foothold in the middle class for the next generation, open you up to a high net worth net work and, overall, boost your earning potential.

Secondly, college is about learning. It doesn’t matter so much where you end up but what you end up doing once you are there. The experience of mixing with new people, ideas, cultures and experiences with a caring and supportive faculty are what matter most here.

Thirdly and lastly, college is about socializing. You are there for the community, camaraderie and big college football games. Sure, the academics are important and earning potential is important, but let’s enjoy the experience while doing this. (You could look at college as indeed the world’s most expensive dating service through this lens!)

It doesn’t matter so much that you have specific answers for this big question of “what is college for?” the exercise is in asking the very question itself. The worst situation for you or your family to be in is to have paid a quarter million dollars for a higher educational experience that you didn’t ultimately enjoy or find helpful.

All families, but especially the middle class feel a sacred duty to finance the potential of their children and this will cause them to experience a contradiction of values. One of the core values of being an American is financial independence but the very high cost of college necessitates families forego this and saddle up with education loans. And, in so doing, likely sacrifice their own savings and retirement lifestyle.

Everyone’s purpose for college is going to look different, but the principle is that you at least have one.



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Brendan Cahill

Brendan Cahill

Exploring emerging trends in teaching, education, tech, business and beyond.