The 40-Year Decision: Thinking Smarter About College



Photo by Wes Battoclette

What is the purpose of college? It’s likely you will get as many different responses as the number of people you ask, but most will tacitly or explicitly reference “the college experience.” 

It’s an odd phrase. Few other endeavors as enormously expensive are justified as being worthy for their own sake. To be sure, every parent hopes their child has a plan, that the $100,000 (or considerably more) they sink into a college education will yield a good outcome. But in a culture that says every high school graduate should pursue a college degree (and that quietly shames those who don’t), it’s easy to forget that paying for it is an investment. And like all investments, the college degree carries risk and is no guarantee of desirable results.

These facts have gained significance with the presentation of two interrelated trends: the increase of student loans as a percentage of consumer debt, and the cost of attendance outpacing inflation. Student loans total $1.1 trillion in the U.S. today, and the average student emerges from college with $30,000 of debt. Many parents offer to help, but this can be challenging. 

“For a school like University of Cincinnati, a parent would have to save $500 per month from the day the child is born to the day they start school in order to pay for an all-in cost,” says Dean Johns, a principal at John D. Dovich & Associates, LLC. For Xavier, the number nears $750 per month. 

“Decisions about college not only affect the student,” says John Dovich, president, John D. Dovich & Associates, LLC. “They affect the student’s family as well. Too often, we see parents sacrifice their own retirement plan to pay for very expensive colleges with no real ‘plan’ in place as to the desired outcome.” 

Thus the changing nature of kitchen-table discussions about college. For many families galvanized by years of economic volatility, the calculus of this decision now treats college functionally, factoring in cost, value and outcomes.

That’s what Dovich’s son, Mark, observed. “It’s a bit different how people our age are approaching college, that cost is such a big factor to us,” says Mark, who will attend the University of Michigan. “The name of the school isn’t as important. I know a lot of people who chose good state schools over schools with more prestige due to the cost.” 

Mark will be lucky to attend a school that is both good and prestigious. But when pressed about finishing in four years versus five, Mark doesn’t have a ready answer. “I haven’t thought about it much.” And when asked what he wants to do after college, like almost every other soon-to-be freshman, he shrugs. 

This is the other side of the issue. A third of all college freshmen drop out. Nearly 80 percent change their major, and more than half will change it a third time. Such delays mean only 39 percent of students that enter four-year colleges graduate on time. Not included in this extra year of costs, likely borne by the parents, is the opportunity cost of that year, during which the would-be graduate might have been earning a salary.

“We understand it’s noble to send your child to college, but at the same time maybe your child should have some skin in the game,” says Dovich.

Lisa Marker-Robbins and Julie Murphy agree. Marker-Robbins is the founder and president of LEAP, an education consulting firm. Murphy is co-founder of benobe, LLC, which offers applications that promote career education. Through discussions with Marker-Robbins and Murphy, John D. Dovich & Associates, LLC will now use experts like them to help prepare families for college beyond the typical financial savings plan provided by advisors. 

Marker-Robbins founded LEAP as a test prep firm in 1999, but in 2008, LEAP expanded its service offerings to include college major and career coaching because “college costs were getting high and return on investment had become very important. It wasn’t something we could just take for granted anymore.”

LEAP’s career coaching methods are based on the Birkman Method®, an assessment personality test that offers scientifically stable (though not infallible) insights into the best career fit for individuals.

“There are always outliers, and this is not pure science,” Marker-Robbins says. But by narrowing the career choices for students, LEAP gets them to focus on their 40-year career rather than their four years of college. The upshot is students enter as freshmen better prepared and they are more likely to graduate in four years.

With a similar goal in mind, Murphy’s firm offers information tools (including an application that can be downloaded on Apple smartphones) to get students to focus on the long-term. “Post-secondary education is important, but what is missing in the equation today is, what for?” Murphy says. “That’s where we come in.” 

Murphy’s daughter, Kelsey, is a perfect example of what can happen when students and their families make intentional decisions about college. Importantly, they had an open discussion about how much of college her parents were going to finance. “From the beginning, I knew how much my parents and I could invest in my college education. So on every one of my college visits, I knew what I could afford and what I couldn’t,” Kelsey says.

Knowing she would have some skin in the game as Dovich calls it, Kelsey worked to bolster her resume so she could ensure a scholarship and minimize her after-college debt. It also made her think about college in a different way: “I realized that college is not the end game, so it wasn’t really about what school I wanted to go to, it was about where I was going next.” 

For more information on benobe, LLC, go to www.benobe.com. 

John D. Dovich & Associates, LLC is located at 625 Eden Park Drive, Suite 310, Cincinnati, OH 45202. You can reach them at 513.579.9400 or visit their website at www.jdovich.com. 

For more information about LEAP, you can visit their website at www.leaprogram.com.