NEW YORK (MainStreet) Is college worth it? With rising tuition costs and a tough job market, this question is asked with greater and greater frequency. Of course, there is no one-size-fits-all answer. Still, before you send your kids off to college, it's worth sitting down and wrestling with this question as it applies to your own family. Failing to do so can cause you to spend literally hundreds of thousands of dollars on a poor investment. So how do you determine if college is worth it?
Ask Your Kids Why They Want to Go
"I'm a firm believer that college isn't for everyone," says Craig Meister, president of Tactical College Consulting. "One of the first questions we ask people is why they want to go to college."
Answers vary, but more often than not, kids haven't given this question a lot of thought. "When we get down to it," says Meister, "a lot of times the curriculum at a four-year university just isn't aligned with their professional and personal goals."
Also See: Best Jobs for Those Without a College Degree
Sit Down and Figure Out an Academic Plan
Sunil Sani, co-founder of CareerGlider, is the first to admit that when he was at college he didn't learn an employable skill. His son, however, studying computer science at Harvard landed a summer job at Google. Not bad.
"One study found that 17% of kids had jobs lined up for after graduation in 2013," he says, "That's down from 20% the year before."
What's more, Sani cites statistics from Kinsey stating that 42% of grads have jobs that don't require a four-year education, with 40% saying they couldn't find jobs in their field and a full half stating they wish the had a different major. All this underscores the importance of taking time to seriously appraise any academic post-secondary track with your kids before they enroll.
Look Into Career Requirements
"I don't think college is for most people," says Clay Clark, founder of Thrive15. "I currently have 20 clients, and four of them actually need degrees: an orthodontist, a dentist, a lawyer and a neurologist."
Indeed, Clark surprised us with just how few professions actually require a four-year degree. For example, he told us that Farmer's Insurance only requires a high school diploma, impeccable credit and a clean criminal check to work for the company. He went on to list a long string of successful entrepreneurs who do not have degrees running from Russell Simmos to Steve Jobs.
"We live in a time when people need more education than ever before," he says, quickly adding, "I define 'education' as 'knowledge required to do something or solve a problem.'" While you might be able to get that at a four-year college, you also don't need to go to one to do so.
Consider Alternatives to a Four-Year University
"Gone are the days when you don't need some specific skill set to be successful," says Dr. Rita Toliver-Roberts of Peirce College. However, she noted that doesn't necessarily mean that everyone (or even most people) need to go to a four-year university. "Health care is a great example of an industry, where people only need individual certifications."
Jack E. Kosakowski, president and CEO of Junior Achievement concurs.
"We refer to it as 'post-secondary,'" he says. "We've really backed off the idea that everyone needs to go to a four-year college." He references someone he knows who has a four-year degree but is running a sandwich shop. While perfectly happy with his career choice, the four-year degree was overkill and a two-year business management course would have been sufficient.
To help students evaluate the return on investment of their education, Junior Achievement has partnered with PwC to make an app called JA Build Your Future. The app is available free of charge.
"This is more of an art than a science," he says, adding that if he had it to do over again, he would have gotten a two-year degree so that he could work while attaining his bachelor's.
Having the Conversation
More than anything, it's important to have a frank and open discussion with your kids about their goals and the role that post-secondary education is going to play. "When I was a kid it was hammered into me by my folks, 'you're going to college,'" says Kosakowski. "But things have changed."
"There are a lot of rewarding things you can do with a two-year degree," says Kosakowski, which isn't even necessary to be a top earner. "The world is clamoring for welders. If you can weld, you can make six figures."
--Written by Nicholas Pell for MainStreet