Should Parents Expect a Return on Their Investment in College?

Recently I was reading a New York Times column where a father of college freshman wrote in with the following dilemma:

My wife and I are spending a fortune to send our son to an Ivy League college. Over the holidays he came home and told us that he loves agricultural science class and wants to volunteer at a sustainable farm over the summer. Excuse me, but I am not paying $60,000 a year (after taxes) for him to be a farmer. My wife tells me to relax; his interests will probably change. He is only a freshman. But what if they don’t? How should I handle this?

The question intrigued me. As the financial backer of a child’s college education, are parents entitled to dictate what majors and career paths they are willing to pay for?

Should Parents Expect a Return on Investment

I decided to ask some experts to weigh in.

Yes, College is an Investment – But in What?

In Forbes, author Willard Dix states, “If you ‘invest’ $120,000 in your child’s education, what will you get back? Financially, the answer is ‘nothing’ since the benefit goes to the institution you’re paying and ultimately, to your child with the expectation that he or she will enhance future earning power with a college degree.”

So if parents can’t reasonably expect a financial return from investing in their child’s education, what exactly are they investing in? Michael Thompson PhD, psychologist, speaker and author, says,

Many parents send their children to college so that they can become educated, thoughtful people with a love of learning. While parents may also want to get an ROI, return on investment, it many not be possible to get both and in the end, they might have to choose one.

The hope, of course, is that in college the teen will find a subject that they enjoy and a career path will naturally follow. Thompson says, “The luckiest people on earth are the people who love their work, the people who have passion for what they do. I should think that the father might want that for his child.”

[More on Finding Your Passion here.]

How Important is a College Major?

The writer’s son is only a freshman. Most college students (even those who enter school with a career path in mind) tend to change their major several times. The writer’s wife tells her husband to relax and this is good advice. This is the first class that the son has expressed an interest in, but he may find other classes/subjects that appeal to him as well as he progresses in his studies.

Zac Bissonette, author of the book Debt-Free U: How I Paid for an Outstanding College Education Without Loans, Scholarships, or Mooching off My Parents, says, “People tend to overestimate the importance of choosing a college major. In fact, very few people wind up pursuing a career in linear function of their college major.” If the son does decide to major in agricultural science, the father is misguided to think that they only career path that will be available to him is farming. After all, there are history majors that go to medical school and sociology majors that pursue careers in business.

Finally, if a student picks a major he is interested in, he is more likely to do well. Bissonette says, “I can’t imagine that strong arming a college kid to pick a major that he is not interested is a better investment of $60,000 than letting him pursue a subject he is passionate about.”

Understanding Current Career Paths

“Choosing a major or career solely for the earnings potential is usually a mistake” says Bissonette, “The job landscape is always changing and careers that are ‘hot’ when you start college, may not even be hiring when you graduate.”

Thompson adds,

The father who reacted negatively to the possibility that his child wanted to be in agricultural science probably doesn’t have a very good idea about agribusiness or what farmers who own large Midwestern farms actually make. He probably has a old-fashioned notion of farming in his mind.

[How to Help Your Teen Get On The Right Career Path Now.]

Most employers are looking for transferable skills – things like critical thinking, problem solving, teamwork and communication. These types of life skills can be acquired by studying any number of majors.

Open Communication

College is an opportunity to learn new things, find passions you didn’t know you had and ultimate become the adult you were meant to be. At the parent orientation for my own daughter’s college, the dean said, “If you recognize the kid we give you back at the end of four years, then we really have not done our job.”

But this type of change can be scary for parents. My guess is that the father was genuinely surprised when the son told him about his new interest and his game plan for the summer.

Christine VanDeVelde, speaker, journalist and author of College Admission: From Application to Acceptance, Step by Step, reminds parents that when they are speaking with their children about college, they are speaking to adults. VanDeVelde says, 

From the time kids start applying to college, parents have to keep in mind that they are advising an adult. Parents are auditioning to be a part of their child’s adult life. If they undercut their adult children’s decisions and do not support their dreams, the child will be less likely to confide in them in the future.

That is not to say that parents are obligated to financially support their children. VanDeVelde says, “If parents can pay for college comfortably, it is one of the great joys to be able to do so. If parents are not able to pay for college or have decided to put parameters on their financial support, they need to discuss that upfront before the child makes a decision about where to attend college or how to spend the summer.”

The father is also clearly worried that the major his son is considering will limit his career options. Given that the writer’s child is only a freshman, the best advice for now would be to sit back and take in the child’s enthusiasm. Instead of worrying about the future earnings potential, the father should ask his son questions such as, “Can you tell me more about agricultural science? Why types of things are you learning? What kind of career opportunities stem from this type of study?”

The son has given his parents an opportunity to be a part of his journey and they should embrace it. Who knows? Maybe he will wind up owning a trendy farm to table restaurant and put a “reserved” sign at the best table in the house just for them.


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Randi MazelliRandi Mazzella has been a freelance writer for over ten years. Her work has appeared in many online and print publications including Teen Life, Your Teen, NJ Family and Barista Kids. She draws much of her inspiration from her crazy and fun life adventures with her own three children.

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