Is college worth the cost?

“If you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree it will live its entire life believing that it is stupid.”  – Albert Einstein

new orleans certified financial plannerAs social animals we’re heavily invested in the sustainability of certain narratives, even if perpetuating them raises significant risks.  In this note I’m going to openly challenge one of the more popular narratives from the perspective of a holistic financial planner and former student.

I was a 26-year-old fish, four years after graduating from an expensive college, and struggling to make it as a financial advisor earning less than minimum wage.  “You need more formal education”, said the wise men.  It wasn’t their fault really.  How were they to know we were about to be transitioning from the corporation economy to the economy of the individual?  At the time I didn’t know either.  Many still don’t.

Too foolish to know any better, I enrolled in a local MBA program and started taking classes at night.  After my first semester I was at the top of the class, and had achieved perfect test scores in one of the macro economic courses.  A student who had spent their entire scholastic life labeled average was suddenly the one to blame for screwing up the testing curve.  The day after my grades arrived I dropped out of school in order to concentrate on building my business.

While I was busy trying to prove that I could climb the world’s trees, and rapidly accumulating expenses in the process, something else was happening.  Somehow I stumbled into the top 7% of all wage earners.  It was becoming apparent that it paid to be a fish.

I was never what you would call a “good student.”  The truth is, with the exception of high school and a few years of grade school, I always found school boring.  I found tests boring.  The questions were always looking for shallow linear answers and my mind just doesn’t work that way.  I didn’t want to memorize the periodic table of the elements.  I wasn’t comfortable with the world trying to tell me what I needed to know like I was an empty hard drive that had a standard set of software installation requirements.  For over twenty years I was convinced there was something wrong with me.  I won’t go so far as to say that I felt stupid, but did struggle to cope with feeling like a fish out of water in a world that worshipped at the alter of trees.

Einstein might have argued that today it’s more important than ever for the fish to get comfortable with who they are.  And rather than wasting precious time and money compelled to chase monkeys up trees, they need to learn to navigate the open water.  The fish are going to need to focus on their own unique ability to swim, and figure out how to add value to the lives of others in the process.  This is how to flourish in the economy of the individual.

The financial services industry’s response to the subject of higher education has been to encourage us to quickly establish a college savings account to combat the rapidly rising cost of college.  Mostly because we need another excuse to sell you mutual funds that are as overpriced as the higher education goal they are meant to fund.  While it might be easy to suggest that this is the result of selfish greed, it’s actually just a quite rational response of shallow linear thinking.

As a holistic financial planner who spent much of his life as a fish out of water, it seems an obvious idea to reject.  Contrary to popular belief we can’t have it all in life.  When it comes to our financial goals, we are often bound to the realm of tradeoffs.

My kids are way too young to speculate on how they might progress in life, but listed below are a few of the alternative ideas I’m prepared to consider with them when the time comes:

1)     Consider skipping college altogether and create your own 4 year head start program.  Encourage them to list four fields they are passionate about and relentlessly work to get them into various internships.  Allow them to remain at home for a few more years to aid them in the transition in case working for free is the ticket to experience.  Experience can’t be taught from a textbook.  Experience is the most authentic form of accreditation.

2)     Openly discuss the college experience as an investment that may result in an economic return or loss.   You won’t likely come across many college admissions representatives who are anxious to tackle this question with you so be ready to think it through for yourself.  There is a great deal of speculation that the student loan bubble is expected to be the catalyst for the next great American bailout.  It’s important to understand that it’s never pensioners, homeowners, banks, or students who get bailed out.  It’s the broken thinking that underlies our collective actions.

3)     Start a business with your children financed using the college fund.  Rather than shelter all of our financial resources in a 529 plan dedicated to an education system that is in the process of being creatively destructed by technology, why not start a general fund.  I often wonder if it’s possible that my kids and I might learn more about life and one another from failing at a business than succeeding at college?  I think it’s a fair question, and it’s one I’m going to spend many years pondering.

In the next issue I’ll share how your child can do any of the above steps while attending Yale and MIT for free.  I’m certainly not advocating we stop learning.  Let’s just consider more cost effective ways of climbing trees. Click on this link to watch this insightful video Is a college degree worth the cost? You decide.   There’s a lot to learn on Bourbon Street…

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