College or a Ferrari?

Image by Alexandra Gamarra

I had to buy a car last year. After listening to my friend talk about his Ferrari, I thought it might be a great choice. I’d look awesome, get cool points, and make a lot of friends who wanted to ride with me in the other seat. It would be fantastic. I could put The Boy in the trunk or under the dashboard curled up when we went on family dinners–he’s only 40 pounds. I think he’ll fit. Surely the experience of riding in a Ferrari would make him forgive the cramping. He’d impress the ladies, who, if they were under 40 pounds and training to be little contortionists, could squash in there with him.

As I considered asking my bank account for permission, I got slammed back to reality. Stupid pothole–no matter how much I pay in taxes, Rhode Island won’t fix them. They’re our state symbol, right there on the official state seal. We love them. They allow for faster trade with China.

In addition to the potholes, it snows here–Ferraris are rear wheel drive. If I bought the Ferrari, I’d be sad the first time I lost an oil pan or fender. In all honesty, my bank account was too busy laughing at me to answer the question properly, so I took that as a “no go.”

Maybe a Ferrari wasn’t in my future. I got a Subaru.  No, it’s not the sporty little stick shift zipping around the corner. It’s not my husband’s former GLI or my souped up little Beetle that provided free entertainment–even though I’m a Gandhi-loving pacifist, I have to admit that I enjoyed watching groups of teens punch each other out every time I drove by–the peacemobile as the quintessential “vehicle” for violence. It’s an irony even Alanis couldn’t explain.

Anyway, I needed to defeat potholes, I needed to drive in bad weather, and I needed to eat, so I bought the Subaru, named it Forrester Gump and have been happy ever since.

I didn’t want to write about cars today, I wanted to write about college.  A friend of mine recently posted that he is ready for his son to go to college. He will just need to fork over $55K/year. I think that’s insane. That, my friends, is a Ferrari.

I’m dealing with the same thing at school. It’s college season–I ask students, “What are you doing next year?” Many don’t know if they are not part of  the slit-your-throat-to-go-to-Harvard lifestyle. They aren’t aware of the deadlines and expenses. In many communities, it’s a given that you should decide on a college by age five and have an uncle buy you mini-college sweatshirts from his alma mater. You will then be taught to hide the notes to the math tests by age six so your peers will bomb subtraction facts, and you’ll be well on your way to busting the curve and becoming stand out for valedictorian by third grade. College is never a doubt in the minds of these students.

Ed reform is pushing college, and pushing it hard. I’d love for all my students to be able to go to college (truth is, I’d like scholarships for all), but sometimes I feel that the push toward college at all costs fails to respect students who might have other plans. TeachThought just featured an excellent article on this subject written by Dr. Grant Wiggins, and authority on curriculum and education.

In his article, “A Nagging Doubt about Common Core Standards,” Dr. Wiggins argued that though college is an excellent goal, the current system of standards is failing to consider many students with alternative aspirations. Their goals are as valid as attending college. He argues that many technical and entrepreneurial paths do not always require university and that “standards” do not mean “standardization.”  A great many schools are getting this concept confused selling college prep tracts to the point that they are failing to listen to their customers–the students.

Author, investor, and commentator James Altucher stated the same in his book 40 Alternatives to College.  He argues that the cost of college is, in fact, outpacing the benefit–that what he learned in life, on the job, and just playing chess was invaluable when compared with the staggering cost of college.  To be fair, James is an ivy-leaguer. Full disclosure: I also have a couple of degrees for which I’m still paying. Perhaps it seems disingenuous for people who are college-educated to discuss this subject, and it would be easy to misinterpret the point.  The point is that we must listen to students and help them analyze their goal in regards to the “return on investment” in attending a certain school to reach that goal.

I am grateful for my education. I studied under famous historians and learned that any passion can be translated into a career with proper motivation. When I tell my students that my graduate advisor wrote about baseball history–and got paid–they begin to see that vision can pay off. You just have to execute that vision correctly.

College is expensive. I often see students looking at schools that will put them in debt forever. Forever. With a capital EVER. The emotion of choosing a college makes it difficult to say no–it’s exciting. Ego comes into play. We need to step back and help students make decisions based on the full picture.

What is the return on investment? Will this college get me where I need to go? Is there another school that is more affordable and will advance me toward my goal equally well? Do I have a goal? Will I simply enjoy some parties or am I ready to take full advantage of this opportunity? Where do I want to be in five or ten years? These are the tough questions that must be asked.

If you go to Yale for social work, you will be paying the tuition of $58,600 x 4 years–approximately $234,400, assuming that it takes 4 years to graduate. It usually takes more these days. High school reform tracks graduation rates. College does not. You can stay forever switching majors and paying the bill. Add on the cost of beer, ramen, and pizza, and you’re looking at a debt that can easily eclipse the national deficit or certainly buy you a house. I’m not even going to get into the interest on that loan or the repayment schedule–all I’m saying is that the medical field must be coordinating with the field of higher education because doctors will have to increase life expectancy by ten years so students can finish paying off their debt. Assuming you graduate with a degree in social work, you will be making $30-$40K a year. You will not pay off that debt, even with the help of the AMA.

College is a business built on emotion. It’s hard to say no to Brown, Harvard, Georgetown, or Yale when they are willing to accept you into their elite club. Many students feel pressured to attend college when they have aspirations somewhere else. I had a student who started pushing lawnmowers at age twelve, bought better equipment when he could drive, and by junior year–the height of the Recession, we were talking about whether he should sell one of his three boats–he had a full business, made more money than me I suspected, and had several employees. He is currently still creating jobs in the economy.  Sometimes the “School of Hard Knocks” is the best investment of them all. But for the rest of my students, the ones who want to go to college, I’m rooting for scholarships and sending them to buy the Subaru.

[Note: I am editing this post to call attention to the comment marked “TH” with the empty gravitar at the bottom of the page–this comment, I think, speaks to this issue better than I did, by someone who has been an amazing success–for the sake of convenience, we’ll just call him “Tim.” Because that’s his name.  I’m grateful to him for these truthful comments, which, had I anticipated, I’d have just had him write the post.  Thanks again, Tim.]

18 thoughts on “College or a Ferrari?

  1. The bottom line is that, in general, you will make a higher salary with a 4 year degree, but as you point out, that money will end up going straight back to the banks to pay off the loans. Most jobs that have a 4 yr degree as a requirement don’t care where it is from or what the subject area is, unless they need something trade specific.
    Students need to take advantage of less expensive routes – starting off at a community college and transferring to a 4 year. So many choices at the beginning of college are ignorant ones, because we simply haven’t been exposed to enough information to know what appeals as a long term goal. Why pay high tuition for that?
    This is a well-written, thought-provoking post. Thanks.

    • Thank you. I think your stats on income are always quoted, but no one runs the debt side. It doesn’t make sense to me that people require random university degrees–I understand about the analysis, the logic, and the dedication, but the ed world is changing as we encounter MOOCs and other free options. Heck, I want to take one of the MIT courses just so I can say I went to MIT. Actually, I did go, but that’s because I happened to be in Boston, not because they accepted me.

      We’re going to need to validate and consider those paths, too. I’m learning stuff online that makes me more marketable–Rosetta Stone languages, coding… will someone invalidate these skills because I didn’t study in a class? Either I have the skill or I don’t.

      We really are going to have to reexamine our thoughts on proficiency and the 21st century career.

  2. Well said, cafecasey! — “What is the return on investment? Will this college get me where I need to go? Is there another school that is more affordable and will advance me toward my goal equally well? Do I have a goal? Will I simply enjoy some parties or am I ready to take full advantage of this opportunity? Where do I want to be in five or ten years? These are the tough questions that must be asked.” — we are discussing these questions with our son as he has started the college search/visit process this year in anticipation of the application process next year. I have provided him with the analogy of a car dealership — go knowing what it is you are looking for, and what you need, and don’t let the salesperson sell you something you don’t need, that you can’t afford. If that Subaru gets you to where you are going, no need for the Ferrari even though you might enjoy more telling people you’re driving the Ferrari 🙂 — this is a topic near and dear to my heart, one that deserves a sit-down with that cup of coffee for extensive discussion! ~ Kat

  3. Interesting after all of these years of pursuing the concept that a university degree is (statistically) a ticket to higher pay, to see all the young people who get their degrees nowadays and then have to go to college to be trained for an actual JOB.
    Not to ever diminish the value of a degree, but it’s still important to keep observing and to adapt you plans when times change but institutions selling education keep selling it!

  4. So, as possibly the only guy in the room without a college degree, and as the owner of a couple of businesses, here’s my two cents…..

    I’m a college dropout. Two years and change in the hole, all $60-something-thousand+ in loans paid off (because I never had one of those shitty “college graduate” entry levels jobs), but basically all for nought outside of a couple of valuable life lessons. Although I do get to say that I “went” to college, with exactly zero people in the last decade actually asking if I “graduated” from college, because after awhile nobody really cares.

    14+ years into my working life I can tell you that a college degree is not beneficial to me and it will not be beneficial to me in the future. I own two businesses (soon to be three, with a fourth in the oven) and nobody cares where I went to school as long as I can keep doing what I’m doing. College degrees are for people that want to work for other people and I don’t have much intention of doing so. (Resume? Yeah, I had one of those in 2001 or so.) I answer to myself and my customers, not a college loan bill to the tune of a quarter million dollars. If I want to make more money I just work more, and if I want to take a month off to row the Grand Canyon then I do that.

    They don’t teach you how to do that in college.

    And that all sounds great on paper. But. Did I have any idea that’s how this would turn out by the age of 32? No, of course not. At age 17 I started college with every intention of becoming an architect. Within a semester that flipped to Computer Engineering which soon flipped into a summer and then full time job working as a network guy at the credit union run by Cafe Casey’s Dad, which led to working for a building automation company which led to a failed family business which led to my own successful businesses.

    Who plans for that path when they’re 16? Nobody, that’s who.

    So this is the important part when we talk about whether we need to send our kids to college or not – there’s no training for where I’ve been – life is your school and it happens in real time with real time consequences. If you suck at what you do you go hungry and you better come up with a plan B really effing fast. I’ve been there, it’s more than a little stressful. It’s the school of hard knocks and some people make it and some people don’t. You’re either built for it or you’re not. But it’s not something you can plan for when you’re a teenager and ignorant to the ways of the world, it’s something you’re prepped for through good parenting, good teachers, good friends, and good mentors. All of which I’ve been blessed to have.

    So what do I tell kids now? I say that at the end of the day college isn’t for everybody but if you can go, go. Finish it and get it out of the way and you’ll have it forever. You’ll be done by the time you’re 22 and there is still plenty of time to start whatever brilliant business you’re thinking of. If you’re smart enough to start a successful business you’re smart enough to knock out a couple more years of school and then start a successful business. And if you’re thinking you’re going to go out into the traditional workforce straight from high school and make any kind of living wage, well, let’s be honest, you probably haven’t read this far anyway.

    I don’t hire based on education – my interview process: you’re cool, I’m cool, let’s all be cool and make lots of money – but lots of people do. It’s a reality because people are a dime a dozen and businesses need to set people apart somehow without actually talking to them. Does that mean you need to spend a million bucks to go to school? No, of course not.. Go to community college and then go to your state school, whatever you can afford. But if you can go, go, because you might suck at running your own business and you’ll need to work for someone else. Or you might just like the job security of a “real” job – my wife does and I don’t fault her for a second for that.\

    Everybody is different and what works for me might not work for you and what works for you probably won’t work for me. So while I think there is a valid argument to have in regards to Ivy League vs. Non-Ivy League – my brother went to Harvard, do you really want to know how much I value his education? – I think in a general sense our youth probably cannot be educated enough, and we should encourage them to continue it as far as they reasonably can.

    I have no idea how to close this rambling comment, possibly because I’m not that educated, but I feel it necessary to share this last little bit: once upon a time way back in the 1990’s Cafe Casey’s Dad told me “figure out what you love to do and then figure out how to get people to pay you to do it.” That advice has been worth more to me than any college education and I carry it with me daily. (Really. Your dad is awesome.)

    And while that advice won’t get me a Ferrari, I expect it to get me a crew cab F350 in the very near future.

    • Well said, Tim (I identified you in paragraph one of this comment). Your comment is so much better than my original post that I want to erase mine and put yours in its place. But I can’t because it’s not “Cafe Tim.” So, I figure I can offer it as an op ed piece, but you actually agree with me… I think I’ll put a note up top! Thank you for investing your time in this issue–it’s a big one.

      Incidentally, “Casey’s Dad” will be enjoying the fruits of his labor at some point in the future–when I say “fruits” I mean “fruits,” because once I get done planting all of them in my massive homesteading garden, I’m going to appoint him the CEO of it.

      • It’s an issue near and dear to my heart, and you’re welcome to plagiarize or quote me anytime. And I look forward to your dad enjoying the fruits of his labor and hanging out with me in my Ireland house sometime soon.

      • Yeah, if we can make that a trip that doesn’t conflict with teaching responsibilities, I’ll go with him to serve as his translator.

  5. Well said. Education isn’t necessarily college, or even school come to that. And we bestow huge amounts of debts on our kids if we insist they go. These days, paying it back is very hard at a time when they want to be settling down and have other reasons to find money.
    And the payback isn’t all that brilliant. Some people will never earn back the deficit because getting a job in the first place is getting harder and getting well paid jobs is harder still. And well done to Tim for being his own person and making it work.

  6. Pingback: Who’s Bringing the Ramen: Finding Your Roommate on FB | Café Casey

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