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How to Decide if College is the Best Investment for Your Teens' Future

Four-year colleges can be one of the best investments of time and money for our teens- if it's the right fit. How can we know for sure? Here are my top things to consider before making the commitment.

Consider the maturity level of your teen. Most of us assume that the logical next step after graduation for any teen is a four-year college. However, maturity level greatly impacts the ability for teens to be successful. If you're unsure if your teen has the drive to focus on their studies and make the most of their investment, it may be wiser to give them a year or more to mature. Gap programs or even Community College can be a great transition without the huge price tag.

Consider the career field your teen hopes to enter upon graduation. Many teens start their collegiate experience without really knowing the career they want. Some choose colleges based on legacy or major or even location. The career area they end up in however greatly impacts their ability to pay off student loans. For example, a teen who wants to work in education will have a much harder time paying off loans from an expensive school than a teen who wants to be a doctor. When considering if a four-year college is a good investment, focusing on the earning potential of the careers our teens are interested in can help them decide how much debt to go into.

Additionally, focusing on career choice can impact whether a four-year college is the best option. Many fast-growing and well-paid careers can be entered into via community college, apprenticeships, and trade schools for far less time and money. Helping our teens narrow down at least the career field they're most interested in can help them identify the best option or combination of options with the best investment of time and money for them.

Consider the services provided by the college's in which your teen is interested. No college is equal to another with regard to the services tuition covers. Different colleges offer different services with regard to tutoring, career services, mental health, and accommodations for learning issues like dyslexia, auditory processing, and ADD/ADHD. They also vary greatly for things like memberships to the athletic facilities, residence halls (even how long a student must live in one), clubs and extracurricular programs, and even how relevant particular majors are to today’s ever-changing growth and development. When we help our teen fully explore all that is, or not, offered by the colleges they are interested in, we can help them determine whether their investment will give them the services they need and the experiences they may be looking for.

Consider the location of the colleges your teen is interested in. There are amazing universities all over our nation. Many are specialized and known for the value of their programs. When considering attending an out-of-state school, teens need to understand two things – the additional cost compared to in-state schools, including any scholarships they may lose by leaving the state, and how to gain residency.

Four-year colleges charge more for out-of-state students, sometimes up to twice or more of the in-state amount. This can create a much larger investment than necessary. In this case helping our teens understand the value of each school's financial aid package is extremely important.

With regard to residency, every school reduces their rates once a student gains in-state residency, saving teens thousands of dollars, but every school has different requirements to gain residency. Almost all, however, require one to two years at the school before they would even consider offering residency. Helping our teens map out the value of each out-of-state school in terms of the return on their investment can help them avoid unnecessary expenses and debt.

Consider exploring the job placement services the four-year college will provide for your teen. Not all colleges are equally experienced and dedicated in helping their graduates find jobs. Some schools advertise their job placement rates as being exceptionally high while others make no mention whatsoever. Before our teens determine a particular college is the right one for them to invest in, they would do well to investigate not only how well that college prepares them for their future career, but also the services they offer to help them gain entry into it.

Consider how long it will take your teen to pay off their student loans. Most teenagers choose a four-year college right after high school without ever considering the debt they will incur – to their detriment. Once your teen receives their financial aid package for each school make sure they add all their total expenses (housing, tuition, fees, travel, food, etc.) for a minimum of four years (though most teens take about five years to complete college) and then take that total to an online student loan payoff calculator to determine their payment and how long it will take to pay off. This can be a sobering moment, but a beneficial one in helping our teens see the investment they're making compared with the career field they hope to enter. It may also help them determine if combining options, like getting an A.A/A.S degree at a local community college (often for free) and then attending a four-year college for example, may provide a better financial fit.

Whether attending a 4-year college is the best option for your teen or not, helping our teens determine the investment they are making in any option they choose can help them develop a realistic understanding of the responsibility they are undertaking.

For more about the different options available to high school students and how to help them know which option or combination of options is best for them, check out College Is Not Mandatory: A Parent's Guide to Navigating All the Options Available to Our Kids After High School.

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