How do I know if an expensive college is worth it?


Q. My daughter is applying to a bunch of colleges and the offers are starting to come in. She’s being offered more money at the schools she’s less interested in, and we don’t know about her top pick yet, but it’s a very expensive school. We know we can borrow to pay for the higher cost one, if she gets in, but how do we know if it’s worth it?
— Mom

A. Congratulations to you and your daughter on the college offers.

It’s an exciting time, but we’re glad you’re considering the cost factor rather than going in with your eyes shielded to this potentially huge expense.

The price of a college education has risen dramatically over the last few decades – in many cases far beyond the rate of inflation, said Peter McKenna, a certified financial planner with Modera Wealth Management in Westwood.

For example, he said, a $3,000-per-year tuition in the early 1970s translates to just over $18,000 in today’s dollars.

But McKenna did some research about a well-known college that cost $3,000 a year back then, but found it now costs between $31,864 and $35,086 a year. And that’s maybe half the cost of the most expensive colleges these days.

McKenna said as a parent of three children — one in grad school, one in college, and one about to complete high school — he’s well aware of what many parents face when it’s time for their kids to get a college education.

He shared what his family has learned.

First, he said, his youngest child is in the process of deciding where he will go to college next year and what major he would like to pursue.

“Even though this is our third time through this process as parents, it is still a daunting process for all involved,” he said. “This past summer, after our son’s best academic year to date, we discussed what he would like to study in college. To say that he was undecided would be a gross understatement.”

So they decided they needed to help their son assess his strengths and better understand the career paths that are a good fit for him. They turned to college counseling.

“My son went through a battery of interesting tests and exercises that measured many different aspects of his aptitude and attitude,” he said. “The tests took some time to complete and he had to be a willing participant for this to work appropriately. I have to say it was a terrific investment of his time, our time, and a few bucks.”

At a follow up meeting with a counselor, they learned the tests confirmed our son has great problem-solving skills, and that careers like engineering might be a good fit.

“When the conversation turned to another trait that was tested, the counselor said his results indicated that he probably would struggle to sit through a traditional lecture-style class,” McKenna said. “The tests helped him understand how his learning style made some approaches easier and others more difficult regardless of the difficulty of the content being shared.”

The tests helped to narrow his focus, McKenna said. His son decided to pursue an engineering school that emphasizes hands-on learning over traditional academic approaches.

So how can you decide which school is “worth it?”

It really depends on your child’s goals and abilities and your financial means. Remember that you can borrow for college, but not for retirement, so you should put your future first.

If your daughter isn’t sure what she wants to study, does it make sense to pay top dollar for an expensive school that may not have a great program in the area she ultimately decides to study? But if she knows what career she wants to pursue, paying more for a good program in that area may make more sense, assuming you can afford it.

Consider sitting with a financial advisor or a college counselor who can help you determine your means, and what kind of education would be right for your child.

Good luck.

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This story was originally published on Dec. 13, 2022. presents certain general financial planning principles and advice, but should never be viewed as a substitute for obtaining advice from a personal professional advisor who understands your unique individual circumstances.