Is College Choice All About Return on Investment?

Published by Wendy Nelson on

Grad CapLast week, I wrote a post in response to former Secretary of Education, William Bennett’s statement that only 150 colleges in the United States were worth the investment.  You can read it here:  College ROI – Only 150 Colleges in the Country are “Worth It.”  Really?.  Since writing that, I have been pondering whether students should really choose a college based, at least in part, on the return they will get for the investment, traditionally known as the “ROI.”  My initial reaction was, no, there is so much more to the college experience than ROI.  However, the more I thought about it, I realized that it really does all come down to ROI, in a sense, but not in the way a financial person would think about it.

My oldest daughter, heading off to college in the fall, did not choose a school that made it onto the “William Bennett 150 list.”  Of course we knew nothing about this “list” at the time.  We had scoured plenty of other lists, but ultimately the eight schools she applied at were chosen because they met her basic criteria for size, location, strength of academic programs, and potential for merit scholarships.  Her ultimate college choice didn’t quite make it into the top 500.

Do I worry about her not getting value from her education?  Not really.  She may have a lower chance of landing a super high-paying job than someone at one of the top 150 colleges on the list, but here’s the thing – she really wasn’t interested in any schools in the top 150.  Over 1/3 of the schools in the top 150 are focused on engineering and other technology-related fields.  At this point she has shown no interest or strong aptitude in these fields.  Many of the other schools in the top 150 are ivy-league or one step down on the East coast or in California.  She was not interested in going that far away from Illinois.  The non-technical schools in the top 150 in the Midwest were flagship state universities.  She wasn’t interested in going anywhere that large.   My daughter is still getting a return on her investment, just not the kind measured in this “top 150” list.

What’s Your Child’s College Choice ROI?

The ROI my daughter is getting is mostly about individualized attention, mentoring and strong advising, small round-table honors coursework, and the opportunity to grow and be challenged by an intensive honors program.  Will this lead her to a tremendously high-paying career?  I don’t know  It might or it might not.  But one thing I feel strongly about is that this is an environment that will help her refine her passions, and will empower her to make good choices for her future.  To me, that is worth a lot.

Maybe your child’s ROI is not about strict salary dollars either.  Maybe it’s one or more of these:

  • A well-rounded liberal arts education
  • A chance to see the world
  • A highly diverse environment offering a chance to connect with people from all different backgrounds
  • A place to strengthen his or her faith
  • The opportunity to make life-long friends and connections
  • A place to be academically challenged
  • The opportunity to take responsibility and stand on his or her own
  • A strong exploratory program to determine what to do after college
  • Preparation for a career that’s about more than just making money

Not everyone goes to college to come out with the highest paying career.  We should encourage our children to follow their passions, and not take on enormous amounts of debt to do so.  That may not lead them to a college high on William Bennett’s list, but it has the potential to lead them to a fulfilling life.