3 Answers to the Question, “Why Go to College?”

You may have been talking about college with your spouse while a baby grew in your belly. You may have started a 529 plan as soon as that baby was born. You may have encouraged your child about their next educational steps after high school. But have you stopped to ask why yet? It’s a big investment, that deserves plenty of questions, but “Why go to college?” is a great starting point to discuss as a family.

I just read Ron Lieber’s new book, The Price You Pay for College: An Entirely New Road Map for the Biggest Financial Decision Your Family Will Ever Make – It is excellent. I highly recommend this one for any parent who plans to send their child to college (no matter your child’s age!). He clearly did his homework and has a clear understanding of the Enrollment Management system we are working with in Higher Education today. I’m still unpacking all my notes from his book, but the question of “Why are you going to college?” arises early in the book and often.


If you’re not familiar with Ron Lieber, he is a New York Times Personal Finance Columnist and also the author of The Opposite of Spoiled: Raising Kids Who Are Grounded, Generous, and Smart About Money which was released in 2016. If you are the parent of littles and are struggling with how to teach your kids about money, saving, and what to do about allowance, this book is for you. Because I found The Opposite of Spoiled incredibly helpful in answering these money saving questions for my littles, I was curious what Ron would do with my world of College Admission and Financial Aid.

3 Reasons to Go to College

Ron boils down the reasons for going to college into 3 categories:

1) Kinship – “… college is about a search for kinship – a group of people, both peers and older grown-ups, you meet along the way who will stand up for you at your wedding and carry your casket and be by your side for every other good or bad thing along the way.”
2) Learning – ” … the highest and best reason for people to go to college is to have their mind blown and their mind grown.”
3) Credential or Job – “… college is a means to an end, and that end is a credential and a job, maybe one that will enable your child to move a rung higher on the socioeconomic ladder than you are.”

Review the 3 statements above and consider what is most important to you in the college search process. Ron even suggests giving a rank of importance on these 3 reasons and putting them in a pie chart. I thought this would be a fantastic exercise for parent and student to complete separately and use for discussion early in the college search process. I’ll provide an example to get your wheels turning.

How to Find College Friends

The student in this scenario is mostly interested in the kinship aspect of college. But what does that mean? You may be cynical and think this means parties and Greek Life, but talk it out, you may be surprised. Your child may be thinking about a small college with small class sizes and the chance to get to know their peers and faculty intimately. Maybe they want to find people who share their interests. That could be athletics, theater, music, hiking and the outdoors, art, technology, etc., etc. You know your kid and what gets them excited. Are they looking for more people who are excited about the same things? Maybe their kinship interest is academic and they are seeking faculty mentorship and a strong cohort of future work colleagues. It’s a great conversation waiting to be had.

A Thinking Student’s College

Parent 1 in this scenario is taking a pretty even approach, wanting a balance of all 3 reasons. However, they do lean slightly towards Learning. I imagine as a homeschool parent who has invested so much personal time in your child’s education, you will sympathize with the idea of wanting your child to continue to grow and expand their mind. You’ve watched your child experience those mind blowing moments and you want those experiences to continue in college.

When College is a Means to an End

Finally Parent 2 sees college as a transactional experience, with small considerations for Learning and Kinship. This parent will want data on job placements, career outcomes, and most importantly, ROI (return on investment). You may think this parent has a specific job or career goal in mind for their student, but there could also be a variety of reasons for making this choice. This parent may also be interested in the college’s prestige. Maybe it’s not just the career, but the branding of your student’s resume that concerns Parent 2. They could be seeking future success and a better life for their child.

Do you know how your partner and child will respond? Go ahead and ask, get the conversation started. It will be an opportunity to get on the same page about what you all want out of this financial investment. In the near future, you’ll need to decide how much you are willing to pay for it.

Have a question? Suggestion for my next post? Contact me!

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