When it comes to college, you’re more than what you pay

Are you sacrificing your financial security for your child’s higher education?

Here in California, we joking refer to Harvard as “the Stanford of the east.” That gentle jab reflects the rivalry between two schools renowned for their stunning campuses, prominent faculty, prestige and sky-high costs. Four years of tuition at either school will set a family back more than $200,000.

That’s a staggering amount of money, but we assume that it’s “worth it” because of the advantage a degree from a top-notch school confers on our kids, who need all the help they can get in a job market that’s been in the doldrums for years.

As someone who’s facing the prospect of sending three children to college—the first in four years!—I disagree strongly that parents should sacrifice everything for their students’ educations.

Instead, parents need to remember that paying for college is at its heart a financial decision, one that should be made in the context of other financial goals. We need to educate ourselves about various educational choices and then “invest” in education to the extent that we can comfortably manage it. And we need to make sure that our egos don’t force our kids into a school, a major or a career that isn’t a good fit for their interests and abilities.

We know how much we sacrifice for our kids. First, there’s sleep. And leisure time. And clean carpets. But parents who sacrifice their retirement security to send their children to a “dream school” are making a crucial mistake. Kids can always take out loans or get financial aid. But adults in their 40s, 50s and beyond can’t easily make up savings raided to pay for tuition, room and board.

Having come of age during a rough economic patch, teens understand this. The Wall Street Journal has been following this trend, writing about college freshmen opting for lower-cost educations so they and their parents won’t be saddled with staggering debt.

Viewing college as an investment makes sense on many levels. So if you’re wondering whether Stanford really is worth it, you might enjoy browsing these statistics compiled by PayScale.com. They look at ROI (return on investment) for more than a thousand schools, comparing tuition to alumni’s lifetime earnings. I wouldn’t base any big decisions on these lists, especially if your child plans to be a teacher or a social worker, but they do make for engaging reading.

Photo credit: iStock photos | svetikd