Should I go to college in 2018 or skip it? College admission expert weighs in.

Roughly 60 percent of undergraduates between ages 18 and 24 enrolled in a four-year bachelor’s degree program that have taken out student loans say they are responsible for covering more than half of the total cost of their education, a new survey from student loan company Ascent found. However, more than half (51.7 percent) said they do not think the “value of a college education has kept up with the cost.” 47.2 percent also said they will need to cover more of their college costs than they originally thought.

We did a Q&A with Tom Barry, one of the experts at Collegewise, a company started by one of the founders of the Princeton Review which has helped more than 10,000 students gain admission to hundreds of universities. Former Counselors and Admissions Officers from Yale, Harvard, Cornell, Stanford, University of Chicago, MIT, and Caltech (to name a few) are part of the Collegewise team.

Today, how much does an average student have to pay out of pocket for a four-year bachelor’s degree program?

The actual cost of a college education is obviously a nebulous one, and you’ll get a lot of different answers depending on how complicated you want to make the economics of the question. There’s the price on the check for tuition. There’s that price plus foregone earnings for the time that the student is in school and not in the workforce. There’s the price on the check plus foregone earnings, minus potential future earnings based on the degree that a student is seeking which is almost always a negative number. This is because despite what makes headlines, on the whole, there is still a real and unquestionable return on investment on higher education over a lifetime.

But students still need to be savvy. Many families fall into a category where, based on financial aid formulas and methodology, they can technically afford a large percentage of the cost of attendance at a particular school, but doing so might require parents to push retirement back several years or to borrow against their home or other assets. Or they might fall into a category where they can afford only a small amount of the tuition, but the gap between what they can pay and the college’s cost of attendance is covered mostly by loans that need to be paid back and that could limit the student’s options when they graduate. So how much families shell out in the short term might be a pretty simple number, but the impact of that price will vary in the long term from family to family.

Is it still worth it to pursue a college education then?

It’s probably more important than ever for students to ask themselves why they are pursuing college and what their aims are after they finish.

If you look at national data, there is clearly a long-term financial benefit for students who pursue tertiary education, even after considering the expense of loans. This is especially true in the STEM fields, which is why you see so many students and families clambering toward computer science and engineering programs.

But there’s more to it than that. A student who hates math and science in high school probably isn’t going to fall in love with calculus all of a sudden when they get to college. And then they’re stuck having to do a job they’re not excited about for the rest of their lives rather than something they’re actually passionate about. In that case, one might turn the question around and ask whether the increased income is worth the education.

What do you think schools should do to increase the value they provide compared with the tuition they receive?

Many colleges are already doing a lot to reinforce the marketability and job placement results of their graduates, in large part due to demand from students and parents to see tangible results from their college educations. Frankly, though, I’m not convinced that it is – or even should be – the college’s job to increase their value to students. Rather, it’s the student’s job to maximize the opportunities available to them, whatever those happen to be.

It doesn’t matter how fancy a college’s career services portal is or how many resume workshops they run if you, as a student, aren’t willing to take ownership of your own future and put in the time to take advantage of the college’s offerings.

How can students select a school that will provide an education equal to its costs?

Most colleges release earnings reports of graduates immediately upon graduation or within five years of graduation. Practically speaking, those reports typically rely on self-reported data that is only collected from the graduates who are interested in responding in the first place, so they can be rather inflated and misleading. (People who are doing well for themselves are usually more excited to share information about their earnings than those who are not.) But these statistics provide an actual, concrete number to latch onto, so it’s not unrealistic for students to view those numbers as a solid indication of how they might fare after graduation.

But just like so many other aspects of a student’s college experience, you get out what you put in. So rather than just asking “What’s available?” or “How have other people done in the past?”, try to reframe the question so that instead you’re asking “What am I going to take advantage of at this particular school?” Because in the end, while colleges are institutions of learning, it’s not realistic to think that someone else is going to do the learning for you. It’s the student’s job to seek out resources and take advantage of the ones that will help them to be successful.

What less expensive options are there?

Community colleges and two-year institutions are fantastic ways for students to try out higher education at a lower price. And many public four-year universities, particularly in California and Washington (the two states with the education systems that I happen to know best), are quite explicit that when reviewing transfer applications, priority goes to students looking to transfer from a two-year college rather than to students already enrolled at a four-year university.

In addition, we’re seeing a lot of growth in apprenticeship and on-the-job training programs that can provide an education that focuses more on the skills of the trade. And for kids interested in the military, there are also service academies, the GI Bill, and a few community programs that can provide stipends that count toward the cost of higher education or even cover the whole thing.


Tom Barry served for four years as an assistant director of admissions at his alma mater, Colorado College, home of the beloved Block Plan where students plunge into one course at a time for three-and-a-half weeks before moving on to a new subject. After earning a master’s degree in international education administration from Stanford, Tom worked as a global programs manager for the African Leadership Academy before migrating to the Pacific Northwest to join Collegewise in June 2014.

A budding master chef who can flip food in a pan with only the rare catastrophic floor drop, Tom won first place in the “Took a Risk and Totally Nailed It” category of a recent pie baking competition for his original creation, The Burrito Pie. When he’s not counseling or cooking, Tom enjoys traveling, spending time in the great outdoors, and writing the occasional product review for USA Triathlon Magazine.

Education & Experience

  • M.Ed., Stanford University
  • Former Assistant Director of Admissions, Colorado College

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