Parenting & Fatherhood

Choosing the Right College or No College

Choosing the Right College or No College: A Real-Life Analysis

Originally Published on Entrepreneur 01/29/2016

My five children and one stepson are now all over 20 years old. All six have gone through the anxiety of applying to colleges and the apprehension of waiting to receive an acceptance and financial award. All six went to Millburn (NJ) High School, one of the best public schools in the country; known for its high rankings in national polls, high SAT scores, and placement of most of the students in top colleges. This fostered a highly competitive environment, in which students were shamed if they didn’t get admitted into a top college let alone choose not to go to college at all.

I have been through this process six times, so I have become particularly qualified at assessing the pros and cons of sending a child to college. Furthermore, my family’s large sample size and ability to get in to top colleges has created a sort of controlled experiment, in which all six children, with the same upbringing and opportunities, have had different experiences applying to and attending colleges.

Here is this status of each of my children to date with a financial analysis:

Stepson K – Current Age 30
K graduated high school near the middle of his high school class and immediately went on to Muhlenberg College and finished in 4 years. K had trouble initially finding substantial permanent work and had to take a construction type part-time job. About a year after graduation, K was accepted to a position with the TSA. He is currently working there.
Financial Analysis: College Cost: $160,000 (no financial aid). Starting Salary was $32,000 per year, with a potential 1-5% raise per year. Likely to eventually reach Supervisor level at $47,500 per year. Assuming zero interest on the college investment, pay back was 6 years. Estimated 10 year projected total earnings are $400,000.

Daughter M – Current Age 28
M graduated high school at the top of her class and went on to a top college, Northwestern University, where she graduated in 3.5 years. After graduating, M immediately found employment at a Fortune 20 company, where she still works.
Financial Analysis: College Cost: $200,000 (including savings for early finish and no financial aid). Starting Salary was $52,000 per year and has had continuous advancement and promotion. Top possible level is senior management with VP level requiring graduate school. Assuming zero interest on the college investment, pay back was 3.5 years. Estimated 10 year projected total earnings are $700,000.

Son B – Current Age 26
B graduated in the bottom third of his class and went on to college at Seton Hall University. Despite maintaining a 3.9 GPA, B dropped out of college to pursue an acting career. Two years ago, B decided to go back to college and will graduate this year from Columbia University (NY).
Financial Analysis: College Cost: $250,000 (including partial financial aid). Starting Salary TBD, but likely similar to his two sisters, and so we estimate $45,000 per year and 10 year projected total earnings at $600,000.

Son Z – Current Age 24
Z graduated at the bottom of his high school class. He immediately went on to college at Drew University (NJ), where he dropped out after one semester and went to work at a restaurant. Three years ago he started working at an electronics company where he is currently managing a medium size retail store and supervising 15 people.
Financial Analysis: College Cost: $15,000 (1/2 year, including partial financial aid). Starting Salary was $25,000 per year.  Current Salary is $45,000 per year. Top potential salary is $60,000 per year. College investment payback (half year) was 6 months. Estimated 10 year projected total earnings are $450,000 wages plus $150,000 saved not attending college bringing him to $600,000.

Daughter R – Current Age 23
R finished at the top of her class in high school and went on to a top college, George Washington University (Elliott School of International Affairs). She graduated magna cum laude in 3.5 years. R immediately found work with the government, where she currently works,
Financial Analysis: College Cost: $200,000 (including savings for early finish and no financial aid). Starting salary was $35,000. Maximum potential salary (without graduate degree) is $60-$70,000 per year. Assuming zero interest on the college investment, pay back will be 6 years. Estimated 10 year projected total earnings are $500,000.

Daughter S – Current Age 20
S finished in the middle of her high school class and went on to Pace University in NYC. She is currently a junior and is maintaining an A average. She is projected to graduate in May of 2017.
Financial Analysis: College Cost: $120,000 (with financial aid).  Starting Salary TBD, but likely similar to her two sisters, and so we estimate $45,000 per year and 10 year projected income $600,000.


Discussion:  The relatively close 10 years projected incomes of all six suggests that the decision of whether to send a child to college and which college to send them to must go beyond a straight financial calculation.

Daughters: M and R, were the best students as they were growing up, which continued throughout college. Not only did they want to go to college, but they also enjoyed the experience there and quickly leveraged their degrees to find jobs that pay fairly well, with relatively large projected earning potentials.

S wasn’t at the top of her class in high school. She is flourishing academically and socially in college, where she enjoys the city atmosphere and internship opportunities. She will likely earn like her sisters.

Sons: Stepson, K, was an average student, and had a mixed experience in college. He enjoyed some of the social aspects but was relieved and happy to finish. Finding a job was difficult but he eventually found a steady job that did require a college degree. His upside income potential is limited, but college provided a chance for him to mature and learn. It may have been better to send him to a public school and save on tuition.

B did not enjoy the college experience at 19 years old. In retrospect, it was probably not the right choice to immediately send him to college. He needed a chance to explore and experience life. When he was ready, he made the choice on his own and was able to get into a much better college than he did right out of high school. Now, at 26 he is enjoying the college experience and is getting more value from the experience. His ability to find work should be similar to his two sisters who also graduated from top colleges.

Z hated the college experience. He was not ready but went because it not only was what all his siblings did, but also what everyone did from high school. Since dropping out, Z has been working steadily for five years and is earning a salary similar to his sisters. His earning potential is unclear but he has gained a lot of practical business and management experience. We also could have invested the money. He still discusses the possibility of going to college but currently has no plans to attend.

What I have learned from these six experiences is that there are many paths to financial success and happiness. If a child is academically gifted and emotionally ready, then sending them to the best college you can is a great choice. However, pressuring a child to go to college when they are not ready is a recipe for failure. If a child is somewhere in between, the smartest decision is to send them to a college that is the best value economically and where they will be happy socially. Finally, if your child chooses not to go to college, it doesn’t mean they won’t be successful.

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2 replies »

  1. Matt, Thank you, thank you, thank you for this. I’m on the cusp of helping my youngest choose a path and it’s been so difficult, especially being the only parent involved. Your wisdom and experience are very much appreciated. Sara

    Sara Hudock One Red Tree Photography

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