PrepWell Podcast


Ep. 202 | Is College Even Worth It Anymore?

Is college even worth it anymore?

Show Notes:

In this week's podcast, I discuss the challenges experienced by Generation P (Pandemic) and how they may have accelerated the existential threat facing the viability of a college degree.

If you've ever wondered (secretly or out loud):

"Is college even worth it anymore?"

you may want to give this episode a listen...

Show Transcript:

Hello, friends, and welcome back to the PrepWell Podcast. In today's episode, I want to take a break from discussing tactics for a few minutes and instead think about strategies as they relate to the college admissions process. Tactics are things like you should start a podcast about a topic that you love or register for at least two SAT tests in case something goes wrong the first time around, or take an IQ test to prove to admissions boards of your intellectual horsepower.

They are very tangible, practical things that you can and should do right away. Strategies, on the other hand, are much more theoretical. They are taking a 30,000 foot perspective on things. They are things that might not have a clear answer right now, but that you probably have to make a bet on, or at least an educated guess on.

Both tactics and strategy are important. But if we skew too much in one direction or the other, we can get caught. This week I want to zoom out and talk strategy and philosophy. And it ain't going to be pretty. I'm going to say that up front. There's a lot of badness happening in the world right now. We've got a fragile economy, persistent inflation, labor unrest, wars in Europe and the Middle East, terrorist uprisings, sex trafficking, cultural and political divisiveness, an open border setting all fueled mental health crisis.

We've got criminality, rising zombie cities popping out of nowhere, and that's just scratching the surface. And to add to this chaos are emerging questions about how to get into college. The cost of college and the value of college. Until recently, I've never heard so many voices talking about the existential threat to a pathway that has been such a given for the last 50 years, and that is raising our children to do well in high school.

So that they could get into a good college, which would help them get a good job and lead them to a fulfilled life. This paradigm is no longer a given. It's gotten to the point where many families who would never imagine themselves saying such a thing are now wondering, should my son or daughter even go to college? That was unheard of just five or ten years ago.

Why is this happening? Not only because many kids are not ready for college academically, socially, emotionally, especially boys, but also because people are openly questioning whether they like the values that their children are being taught at the universities. And even if you think your child might be ready academically, socially, emotionally, and you're relatively confident that they can resist the indoctrination that exists at many schools, how do you feel about paying $50,000 a year or $90,000 a year for that experience?

Depending on whether you go to an in-state school or an out-of-state private liberal arts college, the parents making these noises these days aren't considered fringe and crazy. They seem to be the ones who are paying attention. First, let's discuss whether or not our kids are actually prepared for college to begin with. Right off the bat, A.C.T. and SAT scores are at their lowest in 30 years.

No shocker there. The worst academic indicators we've seen in three decades. Why is that the case? A bunch of different reasons. COVID lockdowns had a generational effect on our kids learning for the worse, of course. It ruined our kids motivation, teachers, motivation, parents motivation. And it shut down any type of academic momentum that students had built up. And trying to get that flywheel moving again has proven to be very difficult.

It may take a generation to get it back to where it once was. And I will admit the things that I expected. My two older pre-code sons to do is probably five times more than what I now expect my ninth grader to do. My two older sons played four varsity sports. They were active in Boy Scouts mock trial, speech and debate, National League of Young Men, Club Sports.

They studied for the S.A.T. They took five AP classes and AP exams in a year. They tutored young kids. They had summer jobs. And that just seemed like a normal schedule. Busy was good. Well, we fast forward two or three years, and my ninth grader can hardly imagine juggling more than one or two activities at a time. He was essentially lulled into a coma for two years and his work capacity took a huge hit.

And I'll take some of the blame for that, too. Not knowing how long the lockdowns would last, I probably enabled him to go catatonic for maybe six or eight months before I finally woke up and realized that I needed to take things into my own hands. I could no longer wait for the government to make a commonsense decision.

And even after a 6 to 8 month stall, it took a lot of effort to unwind and get back on track. And we're still way far behind the eight ball. And I'm working on this 24 seven to get things back on track. Think about all the kids out there with parents who never realized that this was happening. They just let their kids rot for two years and don't have the time or the interest or the capacity to lift them out of their stupor.

It's just continuing on as the new normal. Remember, we're talking about two years with no expectations, no accountability, little to no work and a smartphone and a game console within reach at almost all times. It's a recipe for disaster. It's a recipe to turn back the clock to three four years in mental development, in maturation on so many different levels.

In school, everyone got A's because we didn't want anyone to feel bad. And that trend is still going strong. It's hard to put that genie back in the bottle. Everyone has gotten very used to the new normal. It's like a ratchet that goes up, up, up. But it never goes back down. There is no reason to study or perform well on the SAT or act.

For years, because students were convinced by the media and others that those test scores no longer mattered because they were either optional or not even considered. What did we expect? That we would just snap back to normal? And of course, we had to deal with the smartphones sucking every waking moment of attention away from our kids. That didn't help.

GPAs nationwide have big surprise gone up from an average of 3.17 to 3.4 in the last ten years. Rampant grade inflation has made GPAs as a leading indicator of success at college. Nearly useless. And what about writing? The essay section of the SAT was removed. That was a brilliant idea that really sent a strong message about how much colleges valued writing, submitting essays and papers online, and not getting handwritten corrections back with a red markings all over.

It meant that once a paper was written and submitted, the student never looked at it again. Now, yes, maybe the teacher added a few comment bubbles to the Google doc, but did the student ever read the comments? Do any students rewrite a paper incorporating the teacher's feedback? Of course not. Once the paper submitted and they get a grade that they're satisfied with, likely in a they're done.

And that's even before GPT, which has made writing for things like this nearly obsolete. Believe me, this is happening. I see tons and tons of college essays, many from students who get A's in AP language and composition, and they're abysmal. When's the last time you saw a writing sample of your child's? If you don't believe me, ask them if you can see something that they've written and turned in for a grade.

Good luck trying one of those out from them. And don't get me started with colleges and their admissions process. Of course, nearly every college went test optional for the SAT and ACT. Not only because of the COVID scare in the beginning, but because they had to bend to the political pressure that it was somehow unfair to test students on their knowledge.

Nobody wanted to see how students were doing on an objective basis across the country. So just eliminate the test, make it optional. Better to stick with GPAs where every school can quote unquote manage the grades as they see fit. How are colleges supposed to figure out whom to admit they're theoretically not supposed to hold it against students who don't submit an SAT or an ACT score?

They're just supposed to assume that the student didn't believe that a standardized test reflects their true academic abilities. Whatever that means. If it doesn't represent your academic ability, what does it represent? So the 50 years of history and heuristics and pattern recognition that the SAT scores once provided are now, poof, useless.

A's are nearly useless because of such a wide range of quality and accountability among schools, and there's immense pressure to give students A's. Ask any parent. I sat subject tests which were one hour exams that allowed students to show mastery in specific high school subjects were eliminated a few years ago. Presumably because they advantaged kids who did well on them versus those who didn't.

We don't want to stress anyone out or have them study for too many exams. Chat GPT has made it a nightmare to figure out if students know how to write in the English language or not. And as I said, the contemporaneous essay writing sections of the SAT in the A.C.T. have been dropped. This was probably the only way that colleges could get a realistic assessment of real writing skills.

And at U.S. schools, these are state schools in California, schools like UCLA and UC Santa Barbara, UC Berkeley, UC San Diego. They don't even accept letters of recommendation from teachers. So let me break down the UC admissions process real quick. UCLA, for example, receives something like 150,000 applications when the admissions officers get the applications. Here are the three things they see to help them pick winners among 150,000 applicants.

One GPA. Whoop de do. That's a big help. What a surprise. Another kid with a 4.37 GPA. Number two, the transcript or what classes you took. Wow. Look at this, Karen. This student took three AP classes. I'm blown away. Oh, and I be student. And then number three for mini essays of 350 words each. Probably written by Chad GPT.

Let me read the 6,000th mini paragraph about how coming back from a soccer injury taught me about perseverance. That's it. That's all I have to work with. Number one, a likely inflated GPA. Number two, a list of your classes. And number three, for short chat, GPT generated many paragraphs. Go for it. Make your decision. We're waiting. Thumbs up or thumbs down?

No S.A.T. or A.C.T.. They are legally not allowed to consider these scores. Even if you got to 1600. Too bad for you. They don't want to know because someone else may not have gotten a 600. And that would be unfair. No letters of recommendation. Why would it? Admissions officer want to hear from 2 to 3 adult teachers about the quality of the student?

Short, generic, mechanical, personal insight questions that don't give much room to expand on anything in particular and were likely written by and Ebert no contemporaneous writing sample. No AP exam scores. That's the state of affairs when it comes to college admissions, at least on the U.S. side. So how will your son or daughter differentiate themselves in this watered down, low expectations?

Minimal information, An unmerited, Socratic decaying process. The next rhetorical question is, Is your son or daughter really even ready to go to college? Have they been engaged academically? Have they matured on the appropriate developmental timeline? Are they ready for the social aspects of college? Have they expressed interest in a major or a career or a field of interest?

Will they graduate with a commercially viable major like engineering or computer science or data management? Or will they opt for sociology or gender studies or Latin dance theory? Will they make the best out of their time in college? And finally, with all that in mind, are you willing to pay $50,000 a year or $90,000 a year to send them to college?

Those are really the only two choices nowadays. And I know back in the day it was never really a question. There was no debate about whether your child would go to college or not. That's just what everybody did. No, it wasn't free, but it also didn't set you or your child back. Hundreds of thousands of dollars. Much of it in the form of student loans.

And I know most of you listening to me know this already, but just to make sure if your child takes on student loan debt, that debt will stay with them until it is paid off or until they die. Even if your child files for personal bankruptcy someday, that student loan debt will survive that. There are people in their seventies who are still paying back their student loan debts.

So back to the money. As I've talked about, many times before, there are basically two types of traditional four year colleges in terms of cost one and in-state college and two, a private liberal arts college. Generally speaking, these days, a typical in-state college will cost roughly $50,000 a year. A typical private liberal arts college will cost roughly $90,000 a year.

Yes, there are a few exceptions here and there, but by and large, these are your options. Do either of these two options look particularly feasible to you? A total cost of college of $200,000 or $350,000 over four years. And that's if you actually graduate within four years. There's not really that much in between. What if you don't have that type of money or you don't want to saddle yourself or your child with that type of debt, or you don't think that the college that your child will get into will justify that cost or you don't believe college is worth that type of money regardless?

That's a lot of yours and for good reason. This is no longer a no brainer. It's a brain teaser. With that said, what are your options if you don't have this type of money kicking around or you don't want to rack up this type of debt or you have the money, but you don't want to spend it on that type of college experience.

I offer eight or nine different options. Option number one, a state school. Though not cheap, it's still probably $50,000 a year, but it might be half the cost of an out-of-state college out of state, similar state school college, or a private liberal arts college. Number two, you can always not make a lot of money because if your family does make a lot of money, let's call it $200,000 a year.

You won't get much, if any, need based financial aid. And the only schools that offer generous need based financial aid are typically the highly selective Ivy League schools with big endowments. So to get this benefit, you have to, number one, be smart enough to get into an Ivy League school or similar school that has generous need based aid which is next to impossible and to be poor enough to rate need based financial aid, which is also hard to do in today's day and age.

Option number three Community College. Community college will be far less money. A fraction Your child could live at home, potentially. This is a viable option, especially financially. But most students and their parents stick their nose up at community colleges because they think they deserve better. This is too bad. You have to think to yourself. Is a perceived stigma worth 100 to $200000 in debt?

Option number four get a merit or an academic scholarship. This sounds good on the surface, but the reality is much tougher to manage. For one, you need to be an academic star to rate an academic or a merit scholarship. And you have to go to a college that actually offers academic or merit scholarships, which are often not one of the top schools that you think about or that you think you or your child deserve.

It also means that you have to take and crush that pesky little SATs or A.C.T. to even be in the running. Yes, academic scholarships may offer up to $15,000 a year, $20,000 a year, sometimes more. That's a rebate from the tuition. So that could be a way to reduce some of your total cost. But you may not like the colleges that offer such plans.

Option number five, get an athletic scholarship. Again, this sounds great in theory. Not so easy on the execution side. The only male sports that offer full scholarships are football and basketball. The other sports will rarely offer enough money to move the needle at all if they offer any money. A couple of thousand dollar partial scholarship is not going to make a dent in a $90,000 a year bill.

And of course, there's that pesky little detail of being good enough to get offered a football or basketball scholarship at a college that you're interested in. Don't forget that females have a little bit more breathing room. They have girls volleyball, basketball, tennis and gymnastics that offer full scholarships. The other sports may offer partial money or books or no money at all.

Option number six go into the workforce, make some money right off the bat. Figure out what you want to do. Maybe go to college later or not stay in the working world. Skip college. Do college at night. I know this used to be heretical. Option number seven Trade schools. Go to school to become a welder, an electrician, a plumber, Some other highly sought after job that will immediately get you on the path to making money and a life for yourself.

Option number eight ROTC. Navy ROTC programs pay full tuition for college at many schools. That's $70,000 a year. Times four years. That would drop the cost of college down to about $15,000 a year for room and board. That seems a little more reasonable. Yes, that also comes with a commitment to serve as an officer in the military making $80,000 a year for five years after graduation.

So if you're okay with a guaranteed job right out of college for five years, maybe that's an option. And lastly, similar to ROTC, are the service academies like West Point, Naval Academy, Air Force Academy, Coast Guard Academy, Merchant Marine Academy. Everyone who goes to these schools pays $0 for their education. Everyone is on full scholarship. Midshipmen and cadets actually get paid a monthly stipend to go to college, as do ROTC students, for that matter.

And they, like their ROTC counterparts, also have to work as a military officer for five years after graduation, making that salary of $80,000 a year. If these officers play their cards right, many of them leave the Navy after five years with $100,000 plus or more in cash in the bank. That's not a bad position to be in for a 27 year old.

I would say it beats living at home in the basement with $150,000 in school loans. Let me try to wrap all this up. The COVID lockdowns set our kids back educationally and otherwise in a big way, and we have not yet even begun to see the downstream effects. It's become very difficult to get kids motivated again after such a long slumber.

Colleges to remain viable have responded by lowering expectations, eliminating most forms of objective, meritocratic measures, and basically have made a mockery of the admissions process. College costs have continued to skyrocket with no end in sight. It will be $100,000 a year within a year or two. Employers are beyond suspicious of the quality of the graduates that colleges are producing and many high profile companies no longer even require college diplomas.

It's not worth it for them. The graduates arrive with no skills and sometimes with attitudes and political beliefs that are unfriendly to the working environment. Instead, they're asking for prospective hires to send them personal portfolio of actual work, product writing, samples, creative ideas. All of this leaves us with an existential threat to our long standing shared belief that our children should, without question, get on the conveyor belt and move through a traditional college experience.

And if college is indeed still the right or the preferred path, how do we get them pointed in the right direction? Under this new admissions regime, how do we pick the right college and drum roll, please? How do we afford it? And are we willing to assume hundreds of thousands of dollars of debt to hold on to this dream?

And if a traditional college is, in fact, not the right path for your child, for any number of reasons, what is the right path? Is it going straight to work, Going to community college for a few years, a trade school, an apprenticeship, trying to get an ROTC scholarship, trying to get into a service academy? These are the strategic questions we need to grapple with today.

That's all I've got for you today, folks. Thank you for tuning in. Thank you for your continued support. In case you didn't know, this podcast supports prep academies, online mentoring program where high schoolers and their parents receive weekly videos from me, where I break down important topics and give timely advice about college admissions, particularly for top tier colleges, service academies, and for ROTC and athletic scholarships.

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