Higher education is a central part of the American dream—whether you are a high school student or an adult working full-time while earning a degree later in life. It opens opportunities, provides upward mobility and makes us healthier and happier people (yes, the data does show that!).
As parents, we aspire for our children to flourish, and to be better off than we are—and for that, we’re willing to make countless sacrifices along the way. It may feel like providing them the opportunity to go to college is the last big gift we can give our children before they leave our homes and become independent. And so, we stretch.
But we’ve also seen the scary numbers and heard the cautionary tales. College tuition is rising faster than inflation, and student loan debt has passed the trillion-dollar mark. College is likely to cost you tens of thousands of dollars per year, perhaps even hundreds of thousands of dollars all-in. And to pay for it, many students and their parents are taking on large amounts of debt. Student debt isn’t just a student problem; it’s a family problem.
The big question: is it worth it?
We hear this question over and over when talking to students and parents about their college decision. Families are debating where to apply, whether to go to a more expensive school over a more affordable one, or sometimes even whether a student should go to college at all. And they want to know how much student debt is too much.
Like so many complex questions, the answer is that it depends.
Study after study shows that college does pay off. College graduates make more than $1,000,000 more in a lifetime than high school graduates, on average—which more than pays for the initial tuition costs.
But no one is average. The cost you pay (including interest payments on large loans), the time in college, the economic climate and career choices after college—all of these factors and others can swing the result from positive to negative. The truth is that college is a great investment when the decision is made well. But when it’s made without careful consideration, it can saddle you with debt for 20 years or more.
We left our jobs as university leaders to start Edmit because we believe you should not have to become an expert in the field of higher education to make a great decision about where and how to send your student to college. We know families are eager for help and overwhelmed by all the numbers, terms, jargon, and process. We also believe you should feel empowered in this process. Really! Colleges are competing aggressively for students—and they need you as much as you need them.
Although the purpose of this book is to give you the best information and advice about the dollars and cents of college, we know that money isn’t everything and that college is more than just career preparation for a higher salary. For us, going to college was a seminal life experience—a part of growing up into the people we’ve become. Perhaps you feel the same way, and perhaps you have certain hopes and dreams about what college will be for your student.
We’re here to tell you that you can give them those experiences, and the gift of higher education, without endangering your financial future.
This book is designed to be your primer for every stage of the process: starting with saving, all the way through deciding where to go and how you’re going to pay for it. We’ve been deep in the world of higher education for many years, and this book represents what we think you should understand at every step, and what we would do if starting the process with our children (which we have, with 529 plans for our little ones!). It is organized chronologically—so you can choose where to begin based on where your student is in the process, though many of the fundamental terms we use throughout the book are defined in Chapter Two.
You’ll see that we address ‘you’ frequently in the book and refer to ‘your student’—so, who are you? You may well be a parent—but you could be a family member of someone aspiring to college, an advisor or counselor to one, or even a high school student yourself. We’ve written the book with parents in mind, but we have written with enough depth to be helpful to those with more experience in this topic as well. We are primarily addressing the “traditional” college student: someone who is of high-school age and will be a first-time freshman.
This is not a book on college admissions. We believe that what you get out of college is more important than where you get in.
Please also note that this book is written for informational purposes; you should consult with a financial advisor or other professional to determine what may be best for your individual needs.