Is a College Degree the New High School Diploma?

As we are about to send Andrew and Chandler off into the “adult world,” there is a mixture of sadness, melancholy, and excitement.  Some important decisions are about to be made about how and where these two young men will take their next steps in life. Balancing the learning experiences offered at private universities with financial practicality is more challenging than when Heather and I were their age.

Over the past 40 years, college tuition has increased at a rate that is nearly twice the rate of general inflation. A 2015 study showed that nearly seven in ten graduating seniors can expect to have student debt with the average debt for Montanans to be nearly $27,000. Despite these staggering figures, experts still agree that earning a college degree is still one of the wisest investments a student can make.  Still, balancing the desire to have a great college experience with how to pay for this huge bill without sending your young adult into indentured servitude is not easy.

One article I have come across gives some very good practical tips about college debt. Some of these tips seem painfully obvious but were lost on me:

  • Don’t take out more than your annual starting salary;
  • Start researching majors and careers today;
  • Learn about your repayment plan;
  • Opt for federal loans over private loans;
  • Search for as much free money as you can get;
  • Learn about careers that offer loan forgiveness or assistance;
  • Find a part-time job during college;
  • Don’t spend student loan money on other expenses.

The common theme among all of the information that I have found is that preparing ahead for this expense and understanding the consequences of your decisions is the key to making good decisions.

In Montana, we are very fortunate to have two excellent major universities and a very good university system.  Tuition at these schools can be one-fifth (yes, I said one-fifth) of the tuition at private schools.  Undergraduate tuition at Montana State University was $7,080 for the 2017/18 school year. At the same time, tuition at Gonzaga University (my alma matter) was a staggering $41,330. Although private schools regularly offer scholarships to defray these costs, it is difficult to imagine how their experience is five times greater than the experience at the University of Montana or Montana State University. Some states are enrolled in the Western Undergraduate Exchange Program, but in-state schools are an incredibly good bargain when you consider the alternative.

In determining whether debt for an undergraduate degree is worthwhile, I encourage you to read a recent article from the Washington Post that asks: “Is a college degree the new high school diploma?  Heather and I want our kids to do and be their very best.  We just cannot see how crushing debt is a viable means to get there.