Making College Choices

Submitted by Wes Moss on Tuesday, June 23, 2015 - 3:00pm
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College is an expensive investment. Paying tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars for a degree should make substantial economic sense. From costs to return potential, some research is worth your time.

I recently played “The Game of Life” for the first time in decades with my two older sons. We were sitting around the board at the dining room table, and it hit me how realistic this game was.

We made big money decisions that ultimately determine whether we win or lose. The choices were the same as many of us make in the real world – should we take less money now in hopes of eventually earning more money down the road? Or should we start accumulating cash immediately, knowing we may not be able to make as much money later on?

Making the wrong choice in a board game only costs you a little pride, but in the real world, it could cost you millions of very real dollars.

College, for example, is one of these big decisions. Even with the student loan crisis hanging over this country, study after study continues to show that people who attend college out-earn those who don’t.

According to the New York Times’ analysis of data from the Economic Policy Institute, those with a four-year degree made an average of 98% more an hour in 2013 than those without. Not going to college is a negative $500,000 decision throughout a work life, the article said, citing another report.

While it is clear to me that a college degree helps set you on the path to winning at the real game of life, I don’t recommend picking up unnecessary student loan debt for private universities if you have a cheaper option for a similar quality education from a public institution.

Recently, I talked with my colleague whose daughter was deciding on colleges. She was debating between the University of North Carolina (my alma mater) and Duke.

While these are both good schools – Kiplinger ranks UNC as the number one best value for a public college education, while Duke is ranked as number five for private universities – their prices are very different.

Out-of-state costs for UNC are about $33,600 per year just for tuition and fees. Duke, on the other hand, costs around $47,500, 41% higher than UNC’s.

The less expensive route is my recommendation, and should serve as an example for other similar choices that you may face in choosing schools.

You should also factor in the earning potential of your career path. Wallethub’s entry-level jobs report is a great resource, which looks at the best and worst positions available based on money. Note that five out of the top 10 jobs are in technology and programming.

There are no cut and dry rules on how to win at the actual game of life. A college diploma doesn’t guarantee success, and education isn’t just about getting your money back. However, I believe a solid education that makes financial sense gives you an improved chance for a brighter future.

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Wes Moss, CFP, is the chief investment strategist for Capital Investment Advisors and a partner at Wela, both in Atlanta. He hosts “Money Matters,” a live financial advice show on Atlanta’s News 95-5 and AM 750 WSB Radio. In 2015 and 2014 Barron’s Magazine named him as one of America’s top 1,200 Financial Advisors. His newly released book, You Can Retire Sooner Than You Think published by McGraw Hill, is available on Amazon, iTunes and at your local bookstore.

Wes writes weekly about personal finance in the “Bargain Hunter Section” for AJC.com, the site of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Wes is also the editor and writer for About.com’s Personal Finance blog. Connect with Wes on Twitter at @WesMoss365 and on Facebook at Wes Moss Money Matters. You can also visit his website, WesMoss.com to learn more about Wes, and take his complimentary Money and Happiness Quiz.

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