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Articles / Applying to College / College, Money and Success

College, Money and Success

Dave Berry
Written by Dave Berry | July 17, 2014

High school seniors, as far as why you want to go to college, I have just two words for you: core motivations. Think about it for a moment. Why, exactly, do you want to go to college?

From what I've seen over the years, perhaps the most fundamental core motivations include getting a degree, getting a good job, and then earning a lot of money in order to live the good life or at least being able to buy a lot of “toys." There are other motivations, such as gaining professional credentials in order to secure work to serve your fellow man, such as in the field of social work, medical research, and other humanitarian endeavors.

The issue, as we have considered before is: Does (or can) college fulfill your needs in and goals for life? I discovered two recent articles that address this issue from different perspectives:

1. The potential earnings power of a college education, and

2. Realities of life that many times escape youthful idealism.

The two articles that speak to these points are entitled, addressing #1 above, College Graduates Don't Always Out-Earn High School Grads. Number 2′s realities vs. idealism point gets consideration from 5 Important Things That Promising Young Students Lose Sight Of. Let's examine the wisdom put forth by Allison Schrager and college student Blake Thompson, respectively. You may find a nugget or two to help you discover your true college-bound motivations.

As for the lifetime earnings power of a college education vs. a high-school-only diploma goes, the ballpark differential (sometimes referred to as the “wage differential") favors college graduates by roughly half a million dollars. Schrager's research challenges that alleged benchmark, which comes from a paper by Christopher Avery and Sarah Turner. Schrager contends:

… When we look at distribution of the college wage premium—how much more the lowest-, middle-, and highest-earning quartiles make relative to high-school grads, the picture of risk becomes clearer. At every level short of graduate school, there's a not-insignificant chance that a successful high-school graduate will out-earn you. [My emphasis] The chances are greatest for college dropouts—the people who spend some time and money but don't walk away with a degree …

… I found a $225,000 premium, less than half what Avery and Turner found, partly because I included part-time workers, combined men and women, and granted high school graduates additional working years. The biggest risk of going to college is dropping out: An unfinished degree barely increases your earnings while costing money and time.[My emphasis] Vocational two-year degrees have a stronger positive effect on earning power than academic ones do. (Insert English major joke here.) …

Now, don't misunderstand Schrager's statement's intentions. She caps her article with this:

… None of this suggests that motivated students shouldn't go to college, especially if they're committed to finishing. A degree is still a good bet and technology rewards education more than ever …

Her admonition that the biggest risk for college students to diminish their wage differential, is dropping out of school, leaving higher education without the capstone of a degree. Thus, I go back to my initial point of core motivations. Are you clearly focused on why you want to go to college? The risk of dropping out is real.

You may be wondering why students drop out of college. Here are the top five reasons, according to CollegeView.com:

– Money concerns

– Poor preparation

– Outside demands (aka life)

– Too much, too fast

– The “just a number" effect

Check out the narratives that accompany these five for greater insights.

So, what about those “Realities of life that many times escape youthful idealism"? College-bound high school students have one significant strike against them when it comes to viewing their futures … they simply haven't lived long enough to experience the “real" world. This is an important point.

When I was in high school, I imagined a number of idealistic scenarios that showcased my future working days as something that was light years away from the reality they turned out to be. This is what University of Virgina student, Blake Thompson, is talking about. His five main points are:

– Money Does Not Equal Happiness

… Too often we search for a job with a salary in the 6 digit category, and then from that point we begin to look for a career that might be viewed as bearable …

– Education is Ongoing

… Education is an ongoing process. It's not just gathering information, but it is digesting knowledge and being able to understand it fully …

– Your Body is Important

Wake up, go to work, sit at a desk, leave work, sit on the couch, go to bed, rinse and repeat. How often does this become our default schedule? Physical well-being has been scientifically proven to be correlated with cognitive awareness and performance …

– EQ Not Just IQ

… Too often students are so heavily focused on learning what's in the books at the cost of learning interpersonal skills, which can be more important in a work environment …

– Make a Difference­ and Give Back

If you aren't making a positive difference in the lives of others, then you need to reevaluate the purpose of what you are doing …

Once again, I have to reiterate my position on higher education. It can be a life-changing experience on many levels. I advocate it for just about everyone, but with certain caveats.

First of all — I'm speaking to high schoolers here — you've got to be as sure as possible as to why you want to go to college. Misjudging your intentions can lead to dropping out, wasted time and money, and debt that has no palpable return on investment.

Second, be real. Don't over-idealize something you haven't yet experienced. That would include college itself and the trappings of a life's work and career. Your visions now, as a high schooler, will almost certainly not be what will come true for you.

Blake Thompson reminds us of what Albert Schweitzer said:

Success is not the key to happiness. Happiness is the key to success. If you love what you are doing, you will be successful.

Those are powerful words. Respect and consider them.


Be sure to check out all my admissions-related articles on College Confidential.

Written by

Dave Berry

Dave Berry

Dave is co-founder of College Confidential and College Karma Consulting, co-author of America's Elite Colleges: The Smart Buyer's Guide to the Ivy League and Other Top Schools, and has over 30 years of experience helping high schoolers gain admission to Ivy League and other ultra-selective schools. He is an expert in the areas application strategies, stats evaluation, college matching, student profile marketing, essays, personality and temperament assessments and web-based admissions counseling. Dave is a graduate of The Pennsylvania State University and has won national awards for his writing on higher education issues, marketing campaigns and communications programs. He brings this expertise to the discipline of college admissions and his role as a student advocate. His College Quest newspaper page won the Newspaper Association of America's Program Excellence Award, the Pennsylvania Newspaper Publisher's Association Newspapers in Education Award, the Thomson Newspapers President's Award for Marketing Excellence and the Inland Press Association-University of Kentucky School of Journalism and Mass Communications Inland Innovation Award for the Best New Page. His pioneering journalism program for teenagers, PRO-TEENS, also received national media attention. In addition, Dave won the Newspaper Association of America's Program Excellence Award for Celebrate Diversity!, a program teaching junior high school students about issues of tolerance. His College Knowledge question-and-answer columns have been published in newspapers throughout the United States. Dave loves Corvettes, classical music, computers, and miniature dachshunds. He and his wife Sharon have a daughter, son and four grandchildren.

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