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Home » Student Finances

Is “The College Experience” Worth the Price? It’s Debate Time…

Last updated by on 26 Comments

It was the first week of school, sophomore year of college. I’m sitting in a 300+ person lecture for a math course required for my business degree.

In walks the TA (teacher’s aide). And it’s his first lecture. A new TA for a 300-person lecture? This is odd, I thought. Turns out he’s leading the course. And English is not his first language. And as hard as I try, I just cannot follow what he is saying.

I may have been young, but not young enough to know a ripoff when I saw it.

I went back to my dorm room, consulted with the parents, and within a few days was enrolled to take the same course at a local community college – at a fraction of the price. The credit would transfer over to my degree at the university.

Day one at the community college: in walks a doctoral professor. Not only is he an experienced professor, but it turns out English is his first language – AND – come to find out, he’s also a professor at the same higher-priced university whose class I just dropped and he teaches the exact same course I just dropped. The community college gig is a side income for him. At the same time, I can pretty much ask any question and get any personal attention I want, because the student headcount dropped from 300 to about 20.

Certainly, this supreme upgrade in educational experience would cost me more, right?

Well, if the spread in price then was similar to what it is today:

  • University: $420.75
  • Community College: $81

Then… wait, it was less than 20% of the cost?! Is this some kind of sick joke?!

Let’s recap that real quick:

  1. More qualified and experienced instructor.
  2. Student/teacher ratio dropped from 300-to-1 to 20-to-1.
  3. Credit hour transferred over to the University.
  4. Price dropped by over 80%.

When I figured this out, I felt guilty/dumb for taking any/every course that I took at the university that I could have taken at a community college instead.

Why was I doing this? Why would anyone do it?

The College Experience Debate

Every now and then a friend or work acquaintance will start a conversation about the cost of college.

Most of my friends are in their 20’s or 30’s, so they have graduated college not too long ago. And usually the context of the conversation is about kids (since many of them are newly minted parents or about to become one) and how much it will cost them to send their kids off to college.

A 4-year public in-state university education costs $50,000 these days. And that doesn’t even include room, board, meal plan, books, other fees – which should at least double that cost.

What will it be in 20 years when they send their kids off to school?

Well, if we look at how education inflation (@ 7% annually for the past few decades) has quadrupled the price of an education over the last 20 years and project that forward? You’re looking at a cool $200 Grand, $400 G’s with room/board. No amount of 529 Plan hoarding is going to cover that.

Everyone seemingly comes to an agreement: that’s quite ridiculous.

the cost of college

Daddy must be proud…

But then someone reminds us all why the ridiculousness is worth it: THE COLLEGE EXPERIENCE.

Ahhhh, yes… under-age drinking, the more than occasionally awkward pursuit of the opposite sex, unhealthy cafeteria gastro-nightmares, miserably out-dated-stuffy-nasty-germ ridden dorm rooms – all at $420 per credit hour – with no f’ing clue what I want to be when I grow up. How could I have forgotten?!

Now, don’t get me wrong, setting a bunch of drunken, horny students on the loose, away from their parents for the first time ever, can result in some fun college experiences.

But would I have been any less of a person today without that experience?

Or what if I had simply gone to community college for the first two years, focused on my studies entirely (and possibly even gotten a scholarship as a result), and then had all my cheap credit hours transfer over to the University, basically cutting my college costs in half in the process, while still giving me the same piece of paper that got me the job I have today and still allowing for two years of drunken college adventures?

Sure, some things in life would be different. But it’s hard to say those who follow that path are worse off than the 4 or 5-year plan. Particularly if they have $25-$50k less in student loan debt.

I can tell you this much – just about everything I learned at University is irrelevant to what I do in my job today. And most people feel the same way. So when this debate surfaces, the ONLY rational argument is “the college experience”.

And while those two extra years of college experience might have justified the cost in 1970 or 1990 – you’re going to have a hard time convincing me it does in 2013 or will in 2025.

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26 Comments »
  • Karen says:

    I think this post makes excellent points. Community colleges can be a great deal for getting at least two years’ of college out of the way. Much cheaper, and really the education level can be comparable to a state university. Your story about the non-English speaking TA leading a 300+ hit home. I knew so many friends who went to a massive, famous school and had classes like that. I would never have tolerated it, so I went to a much cheaper state school and had smaller classes. Now my friends are drowning in debt, and I’m debt free.

    Community college should not be overlooked. I guess in the past they might have had bad reputations, but now it’s a smart move. Get your associate’s degree for much cheaper, earn (possibly) better grades than you did in high school, decide what you want to study, then go for the degree.

    Vocational schools are the same way. You can get specific education for a specific trade. If you do your research for your job field, you can find a high-demand job with great pay and only some specialized education required. A super smart move.

    I would also encourage people in high school to look for dual enrollment or AP classes. I took four of those, plus a few summer courses at the community college, and skipped a year of university, saving me thousands of dollars, even after you factor in the cost of those courses. You don’t need to flounder in tens of thousands of dollars in debt. Be proactive, be selective, and save.

  • I went to a 4 year university, but I also had a full ride. My parents helped with my groceries ($300-$400 per month) for the first three years.
    For those that don’t have a full ride scholarship, I would recommend for them to start a community college and then transfer. The first two years of basics, you are in lecture rooms full of students, and the work is just busy work. No point in paying so much money for that.

  • Jake Erickson says:

    This is a great post. As much as I loved going to a 4 year university and paying the extra money, I’m not sure it was worth it. I had a ton of fun and learned quite a bit, but who’s to say that a community college couldn’t have done the same thing. I hope that going to a community college for your generals becomes more of the norm because that seems to be the best route financially. Also, I think it’s crazy that students with no income can sign up for tens of thousands of dollars of loans when they probably aren’t comprehending what they’re saying.

  • Sarah says:

    Ugh, I hate that whole “college experience” justification for paying way too much. Yes, it’s important to learn how to live independently… but you can do that without dropping $50K per year on higher education.

    I went to a 4-year state school on a full academic scholarship. I was able to get the “college experience” living on campus for 3 years, took a lot of great classes, and not a single of them was taught by a TA. I can also attest to the fact that those classes were far more enjoyable and challenging than the ones I took for my Master’s (at a private school).

  • Nick says:

    One tip to keep the costs down–

    My fiance was an R.A. in the dorms every year they let her (sophomore through senior…freshman can’t be Resident Assistants). RAs get room and board covered! I am so lucky that she doesn’t have all this school debt. Once you cover room and board, you still do have to worry about tuition and books, but it’s a great start.

  • WW says:

    I agree with Brian Caplan here – education is not so much about learning but about signaling. You have to keep in mind why you want the education.

    Your employers really don’t care if you integrate arctan(x), but they care that you took the time to sit in a classroom and do what you needed to do to get an A. A college education signals conformity, something which employers are looking for. Also, college education signals a bit of your pedigree and also what you have to lose – for example if you went to Princeton, you probably have rich folks and a don’t-rock-the-boat attitude -the makings for a reliable employee. You probably know someone in your eating club who will hand you a Wall Street job as well. If you have lots of debt from a good school, they know that you aren’t going to screw things up and lose your job. On the other hand, if you cut corners to obtain (probably the same ) education using transfer credits from community college, you have much less to lose, and pose more of a risk to your employers.

    This is what people are often missing when they view MOOCs as a panacea. I feel that the system needs to be challenged by people who forgo the whole college education entirely and instead apply themselves directly to the career they are interested in.

    For years, they told us there was a correlation between college education and income, but this was because more motivated kids went to college, not because college made kids more employable. This led to the student debt crisis.

  • JB says:

    I went to a private 4-year college, but I was smart about it. I got a full ride (tuition, room & board, books stipend, free computer, literally the works.) So for me it was completely worth it.

    The connections I made in college have very directly contributed to my success in the tech industry. I work in a very competitive function (Strategy) in a very competitive area (SF). Connections are really important. The kinds of people who have helped me in my career so far are not ones you would typically find at a community college.

    Even if college weren’t free for me, I think it would have been a worthwhile investment. Sometimes you have to spend money to make money.

    That said, I do think this varies wildly depending on your field. If you want to be a nurse, you don’t need to go to Harvard. There is a very real career ceiling on being a nurse. In business, the ceiling is exponentially higher, and your connections and credentials matter a lot more. So at the end of the day a lot of it depends on what you want to do and how far you want to take it.

    For me college was a necessity, and I have already tripled my income in only six years of working. I’d say that’s worthwile.

  • Steve says:

    I agree that getting cheap credits (AP, community college transfer, post-secondary, etc.) is an often underutilized tool that more people should take advantage of. And the “college experience” is vastly overrated – if you want to get involved in drunken debauchery at any age, it isn’t particularly hard to do. If you want to get involved in various clubs and organizations, they certainly exist for adults that don’t go to college.

    As to whether or not college is financially worth it – the answer is probably yes. Disagree with it all you want, but the majority of good-paying entry-level jobs will screen you out if you don’t have a college degree. Higher up jobs might not require them if you have experience, but good luck getting that experience without the entry-level job requiring a degree. There’s a very clear correlation between income and an undergraduate degree that still justifies taking on the debt of a public, state school IMO. Grad degrees, or even-more-expensive private schools, on the other hand, are probably not worth it for most people…

    • Stephen says:

      I was typing my comment when you submitted this. I completely agree with your comment. I have friends across the spectrum from ivy league schools to community colleges to friends with no college degree at all. Guess which ones have the better entry level jobs? One’s career trajectory is highly influenced by the college degree.

  • Stephen says:

    I semi-agree with this post since my time in college felt like a waste. I don’t remember 95% of what I “learned”, and there were no real finance courses (my passion), so I learned all about finance and personal finance by myself from books and websites like this. My job has very little relevance to my college education, and my college experience was awesome (despite the fact that I didn’t drink or party).

    However, would I do it all over again? Yes. The reason is for a degree from a more reputable school. I’m surprised not many people mentioned the value of a degree at a more reputable university vs. a degree from community college. If your goal is to work in a corporation or work abroad or even apply to graduate school, it is much easier to get your resume noticed from the masses if you can state your degree is from, say, UC Berkeley than from a community college.

    Of course, for me, my internships did WAY more for me than my degree, but the company I work for right now does not recruit college graduates from community colleges, as is the case with many big companies. You can say the school name got my resume in front of the recruiters’ face, and my internship experience got me the interview.

    There are exceptions of course. For example, if you’re going freelance, or already have your own connections, then no, the degree will not matter as much. But I am talking about the majority of college seniors who are going to apply to companies/corporations or graduate schools.

    There is also constant debate about whether the school name matters as much as we think it does. “Your experience, personal statement, cover letter matter more.” Maybe, but the Name still does matter for new graduates, whether we like it or not. From the conversations I have with my recruiter friends/family, the school Name matters especially when filtering resumes out from the thousands of new grad applications, and when comparing new graduates who don’t have much relevant experience. These are often the cases if the company requires online applications.

  • Mike F says:

    A great article! I just don’t happen to agree with it.

    1) I majored in marketing and finance from a college ranked between #50 and #100 depending on who you ask. I have had a well-paying job for the last 5 years doing marketing for the financial services industry. When I say “I actually use my major” people gasp. Even so, the most important thing I learned to do in college was to write, which “has nothing to do with my major”

    2) For those of you, myself included, who don’t remember 95% of what you learned in college, focus on the 5%. You may not know in advance which 5% you will remember but some 5% will be important. When in college, I had no clue what skills would help me and which wouldn’t. My “History of the Atomic Bomb” class was my most useful class for my career. It taught me how to critique my peers’ work, work they had spent months on. The actual focus of the class, what we were “supposed” to learn didn’t particularly matter. I consider this class a microcosm of college on the whole.

    3) My best friends at college were all from my freshman floor. Doing 2 years of community college then the final 2 at a 4-year school risks missing out on the key moments of clique formation. Being away from home for any long period of time can be awfully lonely without good friends. Not to say it isn’t possible, but it seems difficult to make that caliber of new friends once everyone has theirs.

    4) My “college experience” was filled with the usual nonsense, excessive drinking, wasting time, and shenanigans, however there was also a lot of peer pressure to study, complete assignments, and the like. Far more than I experienced in high school where I was able to slack off pretty well with no social consequences. I did about 1 hour of homework at home in an average month of high school (I’d just take 0s or try to finish it up in class without the teacher noticing). When I realized everyone around me in my dorm was studying on Sunday night, I figured I should get with the program and do some work.

    5) Seeing college as either credit hours or “college experience” is a false dichotomy. There are plenty of opportunities to boost a career outside of class through things like internship partnerships the school has, resume workshops, career advice, entrepreneurship contests, clubs, etc. Then also, there are plenty of fun things which outside of college one would pay for but are included in tuition like intramural sports, gym membership, comedy and music performances, sporting events, etc.

    It was very worth it for me, both financially and purely emotionally, that doesn’t mean it is worth it for everyone.

  • This is a very mature outlook on education – focusing on what’s important for your future and what’s a better financial decision vs what everyone thinks is the “norm”. Unfortunately many parents and young adult don’t have this attitude and have the outdated perception that the only way to get ahead in life is to get an expensive degree.

  • Irena says:

    It depends on what you study. I’m currently studying to earn my BA in Math-Economics and if I solely studied Econ, then yes college would be a waste. I would have felt that I wasted 4 years.

    In my experience, business courses are a joke compared to math courses. However, I think college is worth it for those who study engineering or sciences. But business and arts/social science… nope.. as ironic as that sounds.

    (I have only 1 year left to complete my degree and if I could go back and study science instead of Econ, I would.)

    Also, I cut my costs by commuting to school instead of living on residence / renting and I don’t regret it.

    My last point is that some might go to college for the intellectually challenging aspects of it. However, I think that community college is a better option for those wanting to study business since some of them offer degrees in them.

  • I think this post hit it right on the head. I actually had a similar experience. I was taking a math class with a terrible TA my sophomore and I ended up dropping the class because I didn’t want to get a low grade. I took the same class in my local community college and not only did I get an A I understood the material a lot better.

    I think more and more people are realizing the costs of college might outweigh the benefits. The “College Experience” is a euphemism for immature people who don’t want to grow up. I can tell you I was one of those people but once I found out the direction I wanted to take my life I realized that I had wasted precious time in college.

    More and more of my peers are going to grad school after a couple of years in the workforce and I really question their decision on this. They are taking on more debt just to find their “dream job”. I think in a few years these people will regret their decisions.

  • jim says:

    Ha! LOL! I did the same thing when I was in college, only it was a statistics class with well over 400 students in it. TA could barely speak English. I couldn’t understand a single word he said so I eventually dropped the class. Turned out I had to have that class to graduate so I took it (again) during my last semester – got a D, but I passed. That hurt the gpa, but I got out. Wish I had known I might have been able to take it at a community college!

  • George P Burdell says:

    I agree with both sides. If you can take core classes at a community college and the credits will transfer that makes alot of sense. There is no reason to go into a ton of debt to get a college degree.

    However, I’m also of the opinion that where you got your degree can help you as well. Attending a well known school that has a great reputation can open many doors. Don’t get me wrong, you still need to work hard and prove yourself in the end. After working for 10+ years, people are still impressed with where I went to school and companies/recruiters seem to like that too. I went to a public college which is ranked high in engineering and sciences.

    This is why I think for most people, there is no reason to go to some expensive private school unless you get a full ride. Your large public state school is probably your best ROI. Though there are exceptions where a smaller public school in the state can be a better choice. It was in my case.

    Your degree plays a large factor too; just because you went to Harvard to study

    To the whole argument about not using what you learned in college. That is probably true for most to a certain degree. I studied Computer Science and don’t use a ton of what I had to learn in school. However, what I did learn from school are more intangibles like critical thinking, self reliance, etc. My school is known for weeding students out and has a high failure rate. If you can get thru that; the real-wold ain’t that bad.

  • Kim says:

    I went to a large state school on a full ride and had the same experience with large classes taught by non-English speaking TAs, it took some getting used to but it was a good cultural experience to learn how to listen to different accents (not necessarily a FUN one though). We had a community college nearby that lots of students would take summer courses at (non-major one-off classes that were not in a series, like Econ for engineers) and that seemed like a good option but I would certainly not have taken Calculus 1 of 4 at a different school. The reason being that our series courses (Calculus, Chemistry, Physics, etc.) built upon each other and were often taught by the same professors, so the first course is your way of learning that professor and the way the school teaches that course. I’ve also found from personal interactions that the students I met who started at the community college did so because they were not admitted to the state university initially and it was easier to transfer in as a sophomore/junior, they did not turn down the university & choose the community college to save a buck. They also had a tougher time adjusting to the way university courses were taught because they were used to the community college style & didn’t know how to find/use the university resources.

    I do agree that high school AP courses are a good bang for your buck, especially since my high school paid for our AP test fees so it’s essentially free college credit. Then again, repeating most of the content of my high school senior year in my freshmen college courses was a nice way to ease into college instead of diving head first into junior-year content without any preparation.

  • Jason says:

    Basically no if you are not getting a STEM degree, do not have a substantial scholarship, are not going to a top 30 university or you are not able to leech off of your parents for tuition.

    Morons who go to no-name-State-U and take out $80k in loans for a degree in history deserve what they get.

  • Tom says:

    I think the “college experience” is a lot more valuable than this article indicates. As a lazy high-schooler, it was good for me to “spread my wings” and learn a little self-sufficiency. Also, being able to network, make lasting friendships, explore potential career paths and learn how to learn are useful things I got out of college. Nonetheless, I think that an education and a college degree can be mutually exclusive.

    I had the chance to meet some cool people on summers and spring breaks how did things like Americorps or WWOOFing instead of college right out of high school. Personally, I think that would be a great way to see the world and meet people before you are tied down. You can learn a lot about yourself and your passions, as well as gaining some self-sufficiency through those venues, and then figure out how you want to spend or not spend money to get where you want as you pursue work.

    While its a ways off, I hope that as a parent I can encourage my kids to go get a good, cheap education. Maybe that will involve “higher” education, maybe not.

  • Joe V says:

    I agree with many of the points made in the article, and if I could do it all over again, I would have considered taking junior college courses for at least the first year. However, I have a thought to share that other comments have not addressed.

    In between my freshman and sophomore years at a state university, I took summer classes at junior college to fulfill degree requirements. The level of difficulty of these JUCO courses paled in comparison to courses taught at my university. I barely studied and aced every course whereas my effort would have earned me Cs elsewhere. That brings up an important factor to take into consideration. How much of the indirect value- critical thinking, writing skills, learning to cope with non-English speaking professors- do you forego by spending two years in junior college?

  • Rachel says:

    The whole “college experience” term is a major pet peeve for me.
    I attended a community college for the first year of college, as well as having some college credits from high school thanks to a program by my school. When I transferred to the university I commuted from my parent’s home and worked 1-3 jobs at a time to pay my way in school.

    I received the “college experience” talk several times from classmates as well as professors. According to these well meaning people I was missing out on the college experience because I chose to live rent free 30 miles away from campus and I chose to work to pay for college rather than take out student loans.

    I always found these college experience talks funny because I thought the point of college was to get an education and to prepare myself for career opportunities. Apparently my classmates and professors felt that the real key to college was loan (or in some cases parent) subsidized partying.

    I saw many of my classmates graduate thousands of dollars in debt thanks to the college experience. I on the other hand graduated with two degrees and zero debt. I even managed to fit in what I considered more than possibly prudent nights at the bar/parties. Eight years later I don’t feel like I missed out on anything other than the debt that my college friends now complain about having to make payments on each month.

    Interestingly enough my former university now requires all incoming students to live on campus. I supposed this is their way of enforcing the “college experience”. I’m sure they’re making a tidy profit on all those rental/meal plans as well. Thanks to ever increasing tuition/fees as well as universities requiring laptops purchased through the school and on campus living, I don’t know that I would be able to graduate debt free if I were starting out in college today.

    Universities are doing a disservice to students by pushing the “college experience”. If someone needs to “find themselves” then there are many other life options that are far less expensive and probably more productive than paying a university thousands a term to act as a party buddy introduction service.

  • AW says:

    I recently read an article about the decline of responsibility and professionalism in recent college grads in the workplace. So I agree with several posts on here; that it doesn’t really matter if you go to a 4 year or CC and transfer. Study hard and learn as much as you can. When new grads show up for work on time, meet deadlines, turn in quality work, and are respectful, I think they will succeed no matter what school they go to.

  • Tortoise Banker says:

    A lot of students really have no clue what they’re doing when they sign financial aid forms. One girl I know went to the same school as me as a dance major and ended up with $100,000 in student loans! She’s well aware that she wont pay these off for a REALLY long time and you can bet she wishes she chose a different school or path!

  • Mark says:

    I think that getting into college really depends on the person. If he or she really wants to get a decent job or have a great career, then going to college is essential.If that isn’t what he or she wants, then he or she must think about what he or she will do before going to college.

  • Greg says:

    I can see how a professor who can’t speak English as a first language might hinder your process. I would have probably begrudgingly accepted what was on offer. This article really made me think about who’s trying to rip who off and how to get the best deal possible. This article has really opened my eyes. Thanks. Keep the excellent content coming.

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