PrepWell Podcast


Ep. 209 | Is College Worth It? 51% of Americans Say, No

For the first-time ever, a majority of Americans (51%) no longer believe that college is worth the time or money. Why the change?

In today's episode, I try to uncover the reasons why, for the first-time ever, a majority of Americans (51%) no longer believe that college is worth the time or money.

Yikes! That's quite a shift compared to 5 years ago.

  • Why is this the case?
  • What happened?
  • Which students should go to college?
  • Which students should not?
  • At what price is college worthwhile?
  • Alternatives to $300K colleges?

If you're interested in the radical changes happening on college campuses, from affordability, to student protests, to the spread of commercially useless degree programs, give this episode a listen.

Show Transcript:

Hello, friends. Happy New Year and welcome back to the Prep podcast. I thought I'd start off 2024 with a framework that I hope will help us figure out one. Whether it's worth spending $300,000 on college and to the other extreme, whether it's worth it to go to college at all. And I know that may sound a bit dramatic coming from, of all people, a college admissions advisor like myself.

But things are changing quickly and I don't want us to be left behind. And I also try to acknowledge reality when I see it. And if this episode doesn't directly answer those two foreboding questions, I hope it at least gives us something to think about. Part of the reason I'm bringing this question up is because for the first time ever, more than half of all Americans, 51%, now believe that a college degree is no longer worth it.

That's a significant statistic and should give us all pause, especially those of us with kids in the proverbial college pipeline. So I thought it might be worthwhile to investigate why this nationwide sentiment has changed so radically in the last few years. And I'm sure there are many reasons. But in my opinion, there are two that stand out. The first reason has to do with a simple cost benefit analysis.

Up until the 1980s, the value that you got from college, meaning the salary that you could get coming out of college, was almost a perfect 1 to 1 ratio with the cost of a four year degree. That's room for tuition. The cost of college was about $40,000, and your salary coming out of college was about $40,000. In the 1980s, however, that started to change for the worse.

Cost of colleges skyrocketed while salaries stagnated. Right now, on average, it will cost you about $150,000 to get a four year degree. And that is a lowball estimate for most of the people listening to this podcast. But the expected salaries since the 1980s have only gone from 40 or $45,000 a year to $55,000 a year. A measly ten or $15,000 increase.

The cost benefit analysis no longer makes sense, especially for those who graduate with degrees in subjects like psychology, political science, the fine arts. If you graduate with one of these degrees in terms of salary, you will be no better off than someone who didn't go to college at all. And imagine if you spent $300,000 instead of the average $150,000 for your trouble, then you're really in the hole.

The second reason may be related to the information age and how the information revolution has changed everything, because back in the sixties, the seventies, the eighties, you didn't have the option to learn past high school if you didn't go to college. Your professional and academic development pretty much stop there. Nowadays, however, that's hardly the case. Information is available to nearly everyone at almost no cost in some cases.

You can take YouTube courses, Coursera courses. You can figure out how to do almost anything with a Google search, accounting, computer programing, framing, database management statistics. You can often learn more on these platforms than you would from getting a four year degree. If you find something worth studying now, this is not to say that nobody should ever go to college anymore, or that everybody should go to college at all costs.

But again, it gives us something to think about. I don't think it's helpful to ask the question, is college still worth it with no context because it's too broad a question? Of course, it depends on a lot of different factors. Let's go through some of those factors and see where we might net out. But before we jump in and to narrow the scope of the exploration a bit, let's first get out of the way.

Profiles of students who, by most measures, should actually go to college. What do their profiles look like today? And once we identify these students, it might be easier to figure out which students might not want to. So which students should go to college? Number one, students who can go to college for free. That could be because they qualify for need based financial aid that covers room board, tuition, books.

It could be because they won a full scholarship based on academic merit. It could be because they are on a full athletic scholarship or because they are attending one of the service academies like West Point or the Naval Academy, or they're on an ROTC scholarship where 90% of the cost of the education may be covered. If they fall into one of these categories and thus will not have to pay for college effectively.

It's probably a good bet for them to go. Notwithstanding some of the inherent pitfalls and risks of attending college these days, which we can discuss in a future episode. Number two Along those same lines, students should probably go to college if money was no object for them and their family. If they have a $500,000 trust fund that's earmarked for educational purposes, then going to college is probably a good idea.

Number three, students should also go to college if their ambitions are pointing in a very specific direction, meaning they're using college as a stepping stone to pursue potentially lucrative professional careers. That is, they want to be a doctor, a lawyer, a financier, a datum systems engineer, a software developer, an accountant. Professions that require actual skill, actual credentials, and they pay actual money.

And number four, as a corollary, Theresa, Number three, they should go to college. If beyond just their ambition. The student is also willing to pursue a major and participate in extracurricular activities. That will set them up for success in those fields, meaning majoring in electrical engineering, finance, data science, statistics, robotics, and joining or running school clubs, seeking out internships, networking in a way that will separate them in a very competitive field of graduates if they're willing to do those things and they have a proven track record, their case becomes much stronger for going to college.

Even some of the most expensive colleges. Now, with all of that said, I want you to think about whether your child fits into this category of should go to college. By answering these two questions. Question number one can your child go to college for free thanks to a need based financial aid grant or attending a service academy like the Naval Academy or an ROTC scholarship for athletic scholarship?

Family Wealth and Educational Trust Fund? Yes or no? Or factor number two Does your child intend to pursue a rigorous degree? Call it engineering, Computer science, data management, as well as actively participate and grind insignificant extracurricular activities. Call them internships, summer jobs, networking events with the goal of entering a lucrative professional career doctor, lawyer, engineer. Accountant. Yes or no?

If you answered yes to either or both of these questions, college is free or your child is highly motivated and pointed in the right direction, then your question has been answered. Your child should likely go to college. Congratulations. You can shut off this episode and go about your day. And by the way, that doesn't mean that their college life will be easy or they're guaranteed to be successful, or that college will land them some plum job.

Not by any means, but at least from a financial perspective. You can make an argument that it might be worth the risk. Okay, now that we have that settled, what about every other student that doesn't fit into those buckets? What do they do? Well, that's a much dicier question. It's much more difficult to determine whether or not college is a good idea for this group because the lines aren't as clear.

For the sake of argument and to try to put some parameters on the scope of this question, I'd like to lay out a few of the common characteristics that most high school students are looking for when they apply to college at least, and the audience that listens to this podcast. In other words, if your child had a wish list of colleges, these are some of the characteristics that they're looking for a prestigious brand name school that everyone's heard of, preferably a top 20 school.

Ideally an Ivy League school, a private liberal arts college, and a cozy, bustling college town, a medium sized campus, a college with a lot of school spirit, ideally with a big, famous, impressive football team that plays on TV on Saturdays on campus housing guaranteed for all four years with award winning dining halls and big luxurious fitness facilities for working out 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Now, from a financial point of view, which is often completely lost on the students, these types of colleges typically offer no need based financial aid, either because your family makes too much money or the school doesn't offer need based financial aid and too no academic or merit based financial aid because most top 20 schools don't offer these incentives.

And so the all in cost of attendance for these types of colleges is 90 to $100000 a year and growing. We're talking all the Ivies, Stanford, Chicago, Amherst, USC, Colgate, Georgetown, Bowdoin, Northwestern, NYU, Tufts. And the list goes on and on and on. These are the common criteria that I hear from 80% of the students that I work with.

When we begin building their target list of schools, the same colleges, the same criteria over and over and over again. Obviously, this subset of colleges leaves out huge categories of other colleges. For instance, it doesn't include in-state public colleges, universities, which are often half the cost of those private liberal arts colleges and half the cost of an out-of-state public college or university.

It also leaves out junior colleges, community colleges and trade schools, which are rarely at the top of the list for most students at the outset of their list, building exercise. And by the way, we haven't even talked about the admissions rates at these schools, which is a completely different ball of wax. So for our purposes, let's stick to the wish list.

Schools, because that's where most students start. As you're thinking about those schools and the price tag of 90 to $100000 a year. How does that jibe with how your child has been tracking over the last few years? Does your child have a spotty track record when it comes to focusing on academics, discipline, schoolwork, career ambitions? Yes or no?

Has your child spent a lot of his high school career in his bedroom, playing video games, watching Netflix and avoiding household chores? Yes or no? Has your child spent a lot of her high school career obsessing about clothes, making TikTok videos and scrolling on her phone? Yes or no? Has your child spent most of his high school career playing sports and thus missing out on opportunities to get a paying job or an internship or any work experience at all over the summers?

Yes or no? Has your child spent most of his time in high school? Getting good at online gaming, sports betting, drinking games and the joys of marijuana and mushrooms? Yes or no? Has your child spent little to no time thinking about colleges or where they might want to go? Why they might want to go? What they might want to study?

Yes or no? If your child is a prep dweller, has it been difficult to convince them to watch their five minute weekly videos to engage with the content to discuss topics with you? Yes or no? Has your child avoided thinking about what they're good at? How their skills might translate into a college major or the working world, or what type of career or lifestyle they're interested in?

Yes or no? Is your child pretty average run of the mill with no unique skills, abilities or passions to speak of other than a 4.0 GPA and a middle of the road S.A.T. or A.C.T. score? Yes or no? Has your child assumed that they'll go to an Ivy League college because you, their parent, went to an Ivy League college with no recognition or awareness of the cost or the difficulty of getting admitted?

Yes or no? Has your child expressed interest in becoming a social worker, a psychologist, an artist? A teacher? An environmental activist? Yes or no? I could go on and on, but I think you get the picture. If you answered yes to any of these questions or several of them. And if you're child and you would likely have to spend $150,000 on college out of pocket and take another $150,000 out in school loans.

Does going to one of these colleges sound like a wise decision? Assuming they could even get in? In other words, if your child does not seem ready, quote unquote, for the type of college experience that costs $300,000. For any number of reasons, immaturity, lack of focus, lack of striving, indifference, apathy. Maybe you should think twice about sending them to those types of schools, even if they happen to get in.

If they aren't motivated, if they haven't demonstrated a track record of diligence, discipline, maturity. If they aren't approaching college with a purpose and a plan and a goal, then do they really deserve to go to a $100,000 a year college? Is it in their and your financial best interest to saddle yourselves with such debt? If the outcome is questionable at best and a disaster at worst could you sleep at night knowing that your child is skipping classes, getting wasted three nights a week, taking easy gut classes and studying non commercially viable subjects?

Maybe you could if you chalk that up to quote unquote having a true college experience, but at a cost of $300,000. Now the math changes at least a little bit. If they opt to go to an in-state school instead of a private liberal arts school at half the cost. I'm still not in love with the idea of spending $150,000 for an in-state public education for someone who is not ready and willing to make the most of their time.

That might not be quite as reckless spending $300,000, but it's not that far away from it. Again, 20 to 30 years ago, the type of attitude I'm laying out may have been okay because the financial stakes weren't as high. We weren't taking out hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt, and many of us worked part time jobs to put ourselves through college.

How often is that happening today? And as I said, there weren't a lot of other options 25 or 30 years ago other than college if you wanted to get ahead in the world. But today, with the Internet, the sky is the limit. If you're willing to put in the work, if your child is plainly not ready, even for a state school option, for whatever reason, community college should not be off the table.

Trade schools should not be off the table. The military should not be off the table. If we want to go really crazy, how about taking the $150,000 you would have spent on college and in-state college and spending it on real world job experiences, business ventures for your child instead of sinking $150,000 to fuel your child's questionable, debaucherous college behavior.

Maybe you should take some of that money to put a down payment on a duplex and challenge your child to live in one side while they renovate and rent out the other. What about funding a startup or underwriting in a gap year? Or investing in a franchise with them? Use the money to get them some real world experience with real world consequences.

Instead of paying for indoor climbing walls and saunas and lazy rivers and five star dining halls. I guess my point here is that college life, the value of a college degree and how much college costs has changed dramatically compared to 20 or 30 years ago. And with that in mind, should we be blindly funneling our children down the same path if they're not prepared for it or interested in making the most of it?

I don't know the answer to that question, but I hope you're thinking about it a little bit differently now. Prep Academy was designed to make this transition easier by providing a roadmap that prepare students for whatever the next chapter might be, whether that's a gap year, an entrepreneurial venture, playing professional sports in Europe, going to Princeton or Bowden or West Point or Michigan State or Mesa College or a trade school.

The best outcome for your child by the time they graduate from high school is to be prepared for all of these things. If the money's there and they're highly qualified and motivated, maybe MIT is worth it. If the money is a limitation, they can take their talents to a state school or a community college and tear it up if they develop an entrepreneurial spirit and aptitude.

Maybe an unconventional path is the best way forward. Think about your child. Where are they in their development? How are they tracking? Are they thinking a few years ahead? Are their ambitions realistic? Get involved now so you can make an informed decision later. If you want me to talk to them or to talk to you about how to navigate some of these early days, please reach out to me.

I do these sessions all the time to get some of these issues out in the open and to point people in the right direction, because believe it or not, we are not in Kansas anymore. That's all I've got for you today, folks. Thank you again for tuning in. Thank you for your continued support through all of last year.

In case you didn't know, this podcast supports prep academies, online mentoring program where high schoolers and their parents receive weekly videos. For 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. Many parents who listen to this podcast already have their high schoolers enrolled in Prep or Academy, which is great.

If you don't yet, please consider enrolling them. Registration is only open during freshman or sophomore year. After that, we no longer accept new students. So if you have a freshman or sophomore in high school and you like what you're hearing in these podcasts and you'd like to get more content like this tailored specifically for your child for their specific grade and with their specific goals in mind.

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Podcast Host:

PrepWell Academy's Founder, Phil Black, has spent a lifetime cracking the code on the world's most competitive programs: Yale University, Harvard Business School, Navy SEALs, Goldman Sachs, Entrepreneurship, Shark Tank (2X), etc.

Learn More About PrepWell:

Inside PrepWell Academy, Black teaches students everything they need to know about the college admissions process in a series of expertly-timed, 3-5-minute, weekly training videos starting in 9th grade and continuing through 12th grade [Note: this program can only be joined in 9th or 10th grade]. My specialties include military service academies, ROTC scholarships, Ivy League, and student-athletes.

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