The ROI of a university education

While we’re on the topic of finishing a university degree or not, we should probably talk about the Return of Investment (ROI) of a university education. It’s a tough discussion with people on both sides of the fence.

This isn’t even with adults of university age — it’s with kids that are prepping for their futures. It seems that there are three camps.

One group focuses more on the fun they are having now with no regard to their futures, and they think college is a waste of time and money. They seem to think that’s it’s now what you know, but who you know. They can give rather elegant arguments citing examples within the friends of their family’s getting jobs they weren’t qualified for only because “they knew someone”. Not surprisingly, these kids are getting seeing it, stripping the sugar-coating from the situation, and throwing back in anyone’s face that suggests that these kids put down the video game controllers and work harder.

bottle-rocket-01-0612-deThe other group believes their parents when they say the old adage, “You want to do good in school so you can get into a good college and do well with your life.” They may hate it, but they remind themselves it’s for the future they can’t see. They repeat these words often, sometimes with despair as they get a bad grade back.

Then, there are the kids that are destined to go to university, not because of pressure, but because of desire. These are the kids you find racing you to the library, reading, looking things up on their own, asking questions, and thriving on it. They often get ignored by their classmates for being “weird”, but that’s OK with them since it means they can spend more time dreaming when they can learn more and do more. Until then, they are satisfied to work with their small group of friends with similar interests on big dreams.

I was one of those kids that fell into the last group. Conversely, I also grew up with both feet firmly planted in the business world thanks to my grandfather, a successful business owner. Though him, I learned how to own, operate, and manage a successful business. “The key,” he always told me, “is to use common sense with knowledge. You need them both in equal measures if you’re going to elevate your career no matter what field you go into.” I modelled myself after these words of wisdom as I made the decision to go into massive debt to get an education in something I was passionate about and thought I could do for the rest of my life: archaeology. However, it didn’t turn out as well as I thought. Jobs were scarce to non-existent, so I went back to graduate school for a degree in geology, which should have also given me the necessary skills to meet application requirements.

During this time, I had forgotten my grandfather’s words of wisdom of common sense. I buried myself in debt, despite having saved up some money before going to into the university as an “un-traditional” adult student and working nearly full-time during the entire time I was in school. I wouldn’t say I was blinded by my desire to say I got a degree, but more enamoured with learning than working in a career that was in high demand like programming. If I had bothered to ask my grandfather, he would have asked me if the ROI was worth it.

ROI started to really become a “thing” associated with academia last year.

It stems from the economic concept of getting the most ‘bang for your buck’. However, there are several variables that go into this, and it’s not a clean formula to follow in order to answer the simple question, “Was my money in college well spent?” The questions you should be asking yourself before you start your academic career are:

  • What do I want to really do in life?

  • What do I expect out of my academic career?

  • What type of school will get me there the most efficiently?

  • How much am I willing to spend or go in debt to reach my goals?

Many of us went into school, only to change directions or majors partway through when we realized the major we initially chose actually weren’t for us. I was guilty of that too, first with mechanical engineering, then astrophysics, followed by archaeology, and finished up with geology. With all that bouncing around, I finally found a career I would call home, but I could have avoided a massive amount of debt if I’d known myself and the fields better.

Figuring out if university is worth it is not just about the path you take, but about what else you do with your time.

What can you reasonably expect out of your university career? Do you want networking? Training? To party and not study? Do you expect to have a variety of debates and intellectual experiences? What you want out of your time in the university can greatly affect the way you might figure your own ROI number. The more you get out of your time in the university life, the more you’re going to think spending 10s of thousands of dollars a year is going to be worth it.

After you know the answer to those questions, it’s time to ask to how to get the most for your money. If you want to do technical work, maybe an Ivy League college is not the best use of your money, so your ROI would go down. Instead, you’d choose a research institute. Maybe you’d want a lot more social life — in this case, look at one of the Big 10 that have academics as well as a reputation for being party schools. There are schools for each type of personality and goals which can make the effort, time, and money seem more worth it in the end.

No one really likes the stress of debts hanging over their heads, and frankly higher education is excruciatingly expensive no matter what school you choose or why in the end. However, you’ll feel better about your choices and be more confident that it was worth it.

Buyer’s remorse or not?

Reflect on your university life (or lack their of). Would you have done things differently? How? Why? Share your story and wisdom in the comments!