Published March 24, 2021|7 min read
When COVID-19-related school closures began last March, Melissa Conrey assumed everything would go back to normal in a few months. The mother of two had just put down a tuition deposit for her 17-year-old daughter Megan at Washington State University, a private four-year college.
But as with many 2020 plans, things changed. Washington State announced in late summer it was switching from in-person fall classes to completely virtual learning. It didn’t offer tuition breaks for students, and wouldn’t let them defer their admission for a year. Conrey, an associate faculty member at MiraCosta College, began to wonder if paying tens of thousands for her daughter’s higher education, taught over a computer screen, was worth it.
“I was just questioning everything for my daughter, like do we take another path? Everything just seemed so unsure,” she said.
The COVID-19 pandemic disrupted colleges across the country, with many going virtual for part or most of the 2020 school year. This led to tuition protests, and left families wondering if college is all it's cracked up to be.
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College is often viewed as a path to a better, wealthier life. Workers with a bachelor’s degree earn an average 56% more than high school graduates, earning $1 million more during their working years, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. But over the past few decades, attending college has become increasingly financially unattainable.
College is expensive. It costs an average $35,720 per student, per year. And costs are only going up, tripling in the past 20 years, according to EducationData.org, an education research organization. When combined with student loan interest and the loss of income while you’re in school, the cost of a bachelor’s degree may exceed $400,000. Total student loan debt in American has ballooned to $1.7 trillion dollars, and the average person carries $39,351 in student debt.
“Generations of kids went to school because they’re told college is a gateway to a better future,” said Bart Brewer, a certified financial planner at Global Financial Advisory Services. “They borrowed a lot of money, got out of college with an obscure major that doesn’t fit the labor market and now are facing a mountain of debt.”
College costs aren’t uniform: Prices differ depending on where the school is located, if it’s private or public and how “prestigious” it is. The latter is subjective, said Brewer.
“Some of these schools are impossible to get into now,” he said. “Unless it’s from a school with a huge alumni network, or a ‘golden lily’ school with name recognition, is there going to be that much added value?”
More young people are moving home after graduating because they can’t afford to live on their own and pay off their student loans. It takes an average 18.5 years for borrowers to pay off their student loans, leaving some straddled between paying off their debt and buying a home.
COVID-19 exacerbated existing financial issues, leaving many students to question the traditional path: Two-thirds say the crisis has changed the way they feel about education, according to WalletHub’s 2020 College Student Financial survey.
“What other opportunities do we have to prepare our kids for life that isn’t sending them to college and paying like $150,000?” said Brewer. “You could probably start four to five businesses, have them fail, and still be better prepared for life over going to college.”
While the short-term future of higher education isn’t quite clear, there’s one thing for certain: The traditional idea of college as the only path to wealth is changing, said Catherine Valega, certified financial planner at Financial Freedom Wealth Management Group.
“Everyone is now questioning the price and value of college,” she said. “We’ve needed a reset for a while. I’m sad it took a horrible event to get us to this place, but now people are thinking outside of the traditional path. Hopefully families will start getting creative with their education approach instead of thinking there’s one option.”
Most colleges that went virtual for the 2020-2021 school year plan to return to in-person classes in the future, but some may stay remote, Valega said. She believes the option to attend college remotely will “democratize” the application process and hopefully bring costs down, since students won’t have to pay to live near campus. Remote learning is also more flexible for students attending.
But, “I’m not sure if [remote college has] the same value as an in-person education,” Valega said, “There’s something to be said about four years of living on campus, having access to your teachers and peers, and getting those networking opportunities. I don’t think the positive aspects of attending school will go away.”
First, ask yourself what you want your child to get out of college, said Brewer. Is it to prepare for a career? Is it to give them “the college experience?” Is it to give them a sense of accomplishment? There’s no “right” answer, but it could determine if your student should go to a public, private or community college.
If your child is preparing for a specific career, consider their potential income trajectory. While making a high income isn’t always the end goal, said Brewer, getting a degree in a low-paying field at an expensive private university may not be the wisest financial decision. If your child is planning on pursuing a career that requires a graduate degree, like a doctor or lawyer, considering a more affordable undergraduate school may make sense.
Starting at junior college is one affordable option for your child’s first few years. They can often pay reduced tuition and then transfer to a four-year institution, and receive a diploma from that school. Other options for students include working for a couple years and then enrolling, or getting a non-collegiate certification for a specific industry.
Conrey’s daughter Megan ended up withdrawing from Washington State for the 2020-2021 school year and taking a 10-week work program to become a veterinarian assistant, while interning at a veterinarian office. She now works there full-time, and was readmitted to Washington State for fall 2021. She’s now entering college with hands-on job experience in the industry she wants to go into, and extra money. She even opened a Roth individual retirement account to begin saving for her future, said Conrey.
“It really worked out,” Conrey said. “It’s not the path we thought was going to happen, but we really left the decision up to her. She didn’t want her freshman experience to be in her bedroom while paying tuition.”
No matter how old your child is, parents should begin saving for college as soon as possible. College costs typically rise over time, so the earlier you start, the more you’ll be able to reduce their financial burden.
But before you start, get your financial house in order: Set up a savings plan for your retirement, maintain an adequate emergency fund and set a solid budget.
One of the best ways to save for college is a 529 plan, which allows you to save tax-free for college costs. Even if your child doesn’t end up using all the money, you can still use it to pay for other educational expenses. Set up regular automatic contributions so you won’t forget to contribute. Other ways to save include Coverdell Education Savings accounts and even Roth IRAs. Brewer said it’s best to consult a financial advisor to learn the best way to save for you.
There is some talk of legislation to forgive student loan debt. President Biden campaigned on the promise of student loan forgiveness, but has yet to outline any clear plan. Brewer says you shouldn’t count on legislation to avoid taking on debt. The “goal should be to not go into debt for college,” he said. There are also ways to reduce tuition costs once your child gets closer to college age, including scholarships, financial aid and state grants. You may even be able to negotiate tuition.
Once your child gets older, involve them in the savings process. Educating them about the costs of college and saving can give them more motivation to succeed, and also even help grow their college fund faster if they’re able to contribute. You can also set reasonable expectations on what you can afford, and get a better understanding of what career path and schools they are interested in.
If you currently have student loans, we have tips on how to make a plan to pay them off.
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