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College Buyer’s Remorse

two people in graduation cap and gown, seen in silhouette climbing a staircase toward a blue sky
photo by Aaron Hawkins

Buyer’s remorse is bad enough when you find yourself out several hundred dollars for a trendy item of clothing or the latest mobile gadget.

It is much, much worse when you’re out tens of thousands of dollars and several years of your life.

A poll from Gallup released June 1 reports that over half of the American adults surveyed would change at least one of their major postsecondary education decisions given the opportunity. Twelve percent would have pursued a different degree, 28 percent would have selected a different school and 36 percent would have changed their area of study. Those most likely to wish for a do-over? The participants who did not finish their degree, though bachelor’s degree holders who did not go on to graduate school are not far behind them.

These findings represent a lot of frustration, but they cannot be all that surprising to anyone who has paid attention to the state of higher education recently. Americans owe a collective $1.3 trillion in student loan debt, and tuition continues to steadily outpace inflation. It is also true that, in many ways, a bachelor’s degree has replaced a high school diploma as a basic requirement for many entry-level jobs.

Yet the Gallup poll suggests a common-sense point that many American families seem to have forgotten: College still isn’t the only path to success.

Entrepreneurs and builders, for instance, may well succeed without a formal college education. This is the idea behind the Thiel Fellowship, a program launched by PayPal founder Peter Thiel. Not every college dropout is going to be Steve Jobs, of course. But it is patently false that there is no future without a degree, or even without a degree from a prestigious – and expensive – top-tier school.

That said, people who finish college do have a brighter financial future than those who don’t, at least in the aggregate. But for a certain type of American high schooler, this measure has been taken to mean that going directly from high school to a four-year undergraduate program is the default, no matter how uncertain the teenager might be about a career path or how much debt the program will force that teenager to accrue.

As I observed in this space a few years ago, taking on massive amounts of debt to pay for college simply doesn’t make sense in many situations. Consider that 28 percent who would have selected a different school in light of the fact that, in the same poll, a majority of the participants strongly agreed that they had received a high-quality education. It seems likely that at least some of those who wished they’d picked a different school regret not the product they purchased, but its price tag.

For students who know what they want to study, there are a variety of strategies for pursuing a college degree while keeping debt minimal. These include living at home or planning to transfer strategically midway through a degree program. The price of a college degree varies widely, and students should not fall into the “more is more” trap, especially where undergraduate degrees are concerned.

This does not solve the problem, however, of regret over choice of major. Some young people would greatly benefit from waiting a year or two before going to college at all. For some, this might mean working while attending a community college part time or taking courses online. For others, it might mean working full time to gain experience and a better sense of what they might like to pursue. Some high school graduates might also consider going to vocational school or pursuing a professional certification that does not require a four-year degree.

If anything, the merits of pausing before settling on how to proceed are even greater for individuals deciding whether to pursue a graduate degree. As a business owner and a financial adviser, I often like to see that someone has worked for a few years between undergrad and grad school, because I believe it makes it much more likely that the grad school investment will be well directed.

Many young people feel pressured to know exactly what they want at 17 or 18 years old. The Gallup poll is an excellent illustration of how that pressure plays out. As 21-year-old Ray Johnson recently told The Wall Street Journal, “I went to college because my mom wanted me to.” Johnson paid about $10,000 for the three months he spent at a private liberal-arts school before dropping out. Now, a few years later, he is seriously considering becoming an athletic trainer.

There are many paths to success. We shouldn’t encourage young people, especially those who aren’t yet sure of their goals, to pursue the ones that include massive amounts of debt just because they are the roads most taken.

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