Why More Families Should Ask If College Is Worth It

When it’s time for questions during our campus tours and information sessions, the hands go up: How big are classes? What’s the food like? Where’s the gym? Will I have a roommate?

Those are all questions that should be raised. But what’s not asked enough is the question in the back of every parent’s mind: Is four years at this college worth the price tag? And for a four-year exclusively undergraduate liberal arts college like the College of the Holy Cross where tuition, room and board rings in at nearly $60,000 a year, it’s a question that deserves a detailed answer.

First, don’t buy into the myth that a liberal arts degree doesn’t lead to a well-paying job. Even though he quickly apologized, President Obama fueled this myth when he said: “[A] lot of young people no longer see the trades and skilled manufacturing as a viable career. I promise you, folks can make a lot more, potentially, with skilled manufacturing or the trades than they might with an art history degree.”

Instead, consider the findings in reports such as “How Liberal Arts and Sciences Majors Fare in Employment.” The findings demonstrate that majoring in a liberal arts field can and does lead to successful and remunerative careers in a wide array of professions: “Liberal arts majors may start off slower than others when it comes to the postgraduate career path, but they close much of the salary and unemployment gap over time. By their mid-50s, liberal arts majors are, on average, making more money those who studied in professional and pre-professional fields, and are employed at similar rates.”

So what should families really be asking on campus tours and looking for on websites? Consider these:

1. Will I graduate in four years?

On average, only about 41 percent of undergrads cross the commencement stage in four years, according to data reported by 1,207 ranked colleges and universities in an annual U.S. News & World Report survey. (That figure reflects first-time, full-time students who entered as freshmen in fall 2006 and graduated by spring 2010.) One, two, or three additional years to get a diploma means a lot more in tuition and fees. Students should check graduation rates during the college search, and they should enter college with a timeline in mind to keep costs under control.

2. What happens if I decide to change my college major? Will I lose valuable time?

Some students know exactly what they want to do in life. Many are not so certain. Still others might not discover until after their sophomore year that their passion really lies in music, not engineering—for example. College is a time of exploration, but depending on timing and credit hours required for a major, a dramatic switch to another career direction can mean extending those four years. According to CollegeBoard.org, most college students change majors at least once, and some even change several times. During the college search, students should get familiar with each school’s advising system. How accessible is a student’s advisor? Does he/she stay with her students all four years? How flexible or structured are your class choices for the academic programs that interest you?

3. Will I improve my skills in writing, critical thinking, and analysis? Will I have the opportunity to work productively and successfully in teams?

These are the skills that are imminently transferable and will carry students through whatever an uncertain future holds. In fact, they are among the top skills cited by hiring managers when the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE) asked them to prioritize what they are looking for in college grads. Whether you major in French or computer science, your ability to excel in these areas and demonstrate these skills to potential employers will make a world of difference.

4. Will I have access to a loyal and supportive alumni network?

One way to discern this important question is to gauge the level of satisfaction alumni have with their college experience. Check out the alumni giving rate on a college’s website. If it’s above 50 percent, that’s a great sign that happy grads are out there—not only eager to contribute dollars to their alma mater, but also passionate about giving their time and advice to help, mentor, and even hire other graduates.

5. What financial aid and scholarships are available?

Researching financial aid, loans, grants and scholarships isn’t easy—parents, students, even some members of the media don’t fully understand terms like “need blind,” “need aware,” “merit scholarships” and others. It’s important to learn the definitions and find out the policy of each college on your list. Access to aid and scholarships can vary widely. It’s smart to start thinking about aid well before senior year so your family is familiar with the types and requirements before it’s time to apply. And look beyond the campus for sources of specialized scholarships. The research you put in now could be a life-changing investment.

Students and parents alike should definitely raise their hands to find out about the gym, the dorm room and the dining hall when on college tours. But deciding whether a college is truly worth it for you and your family means looking deeper.

1. Debra Humpreys and Patrick Kelly (2014.) Association of American Colleges and Universities and the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems.