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The College Conundrum

September 20, 2021

Posted in Education

For decades the traditional four-year college was touted as an excellent way to achieve the American Dream, but is that still the case? With mountains of student debt, sky-high tuition, and the ongoing threat of pandemic campus closures, how do you know if it’s right for you or your loved ones? Let’s explore a few ways to think about whether the traditional college experience is a good fit or not.

The United States has long prided itself on having the greatest and most sought-after system of colleges and universities in the world. However, since 1980, the average cost of college in the US has grown over five times faster than the rate of overall inflation. This has made a world-class U.S. education prohibitively more expensive than it was during the Reagan and Clinton eras. In fact, one of the few bright spots of the pandemic has been that as of November 2020, college tuition and fees had only grown by 0.6% year-over-year, the lowest increase in 40 years.

With a drastic increase in cost has come an equally drastic increase in student loan borrowing for the average student. As of 2020 there was a total of around 45 million student loan borrowers that owe a collective $1,500,000,000,000 (that’s trillion, with a “t”). The average student loan balance for a bachelor’s degree at graduation today is about $30,000. For comparison, the average student loan debt at graduation for 1980 graduates was just over $12,000 (adjusted for inflation).

With all these mind-boggling numbers you’re probably thinking, “Have anything positive to share?”. The answer is yes! Americans who obtained a bachelor’s degree earned several hundred thousand more than those with just a high school diploma over their lifetime. The earnings differential was even greater for those that achieved a graduate degree, over one million dollars!


The numbers from the chart above only tell part of the story, though. So much depends on what you, the student, are looking for from going to college.

Are you looking to get a bachelor’s degree simply to check that box for future employment purposes? Perhaps attending a more affordable state school closer to home is the right choice. Better yet, look into community colleges to complete a year or two’s worth of required courses before transferring to a bigger state school to save even more money, or just to get a feel for life as a college student.

How do you plan on paying for college? Do you qualify for need-based aid or scholarships? Are you willing to apply for outside scholarships and/or work during school to help avoid going deep into debt? If your parents, family, or friends will help you attend college debt-free please make sure to show your appreciation, this is not the norm for most Americans.

What kind of job prospects will you have once you complete your degree? Whether you want to pursue a career in the arts, nonprofit work, medicine, technology, etc., just know ahead of time what sort of financial implications these decisions may have and plan accordingly. Take time now to become familiar with the job and salary opportunities in your intended field so you can make informed decisions before and after graduation.

How important to you are the non-financial aspects of the traditional on-campus college experience? It is hard to put a price on the value of the friendships, extracurricular activities, mentorship opportunities, and general networking that college can offer. How much is that worth to you?

If you don’t think the traditional college journey is for you, have you looked at alternatives? Just because your parents, your siblings, or your friends have gone to a four-year school doesn’t mean you have to. Careers as welders, plumbers, and electricians can often be entered via apprenticeship or trade school, which is far less expensive than the average college and often results in being hired on immediately after successfully completing the necessary coursework and exams. Technology giants like Google and SalesForce have even offered up online certificate courses they will accept instead of a degree!

If you are interested in the financial side of making college a reality (whatever that looks like for you or your loved ones) then I encourage you to attend our Ripple Event webinar “The A-Zs of Paying for College” on Thursday, September 30 at 4 pm. Monica Santos-Pinacho, a financial aid counselor from Washington State University Vancouver will join us. Register in advance for this webinar via the following link


If you want a listening ear to explore how a college education may fit into your financial plan, whether as a student or financial backer, then reach out to your financial planner today.




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