What Should We Expect From College?


As my oldest son gets closer and closer to attending a university, we’ve had some conversations about what he expect to get out of college. Some kids just want to have a good time. Some want an education. Others might want to meet their future spouse and transition into adulthood. Still, more might have no idea what to expect from college. Often it’s a combination of all of these.

Most of us reading this have some experience with attending college. A lot of high wage earners have undergraduate and even graduate degrees.

That being said, the college experience has changed in some areas. For one thing, it’s a lot more expensive than when I attended university.

What Should We Expect From College?


Another important fact is a college degree makes it a heck of a lot easier to get a job. The unemployment rate is less than half that of a high school grad without a college degree(5.3% vs 2.5% as of January 2017). To make matters worse for high school only graduates, their wages haven’t even kept up with inflation.

What Should We Expect From College?


What Should We Expect From College?

In 1998 the median salary of a high school educated person was $25,062. Inflation adjusted that should be $36,902. In 2016 the median wage with a high school diploma is only $35,308.

For college grads, the median salary was $40,387 in 1998. Inflation adjusted that is $59,467. The true median number as of 2016 was $60,060. At least college educated individual’s salaries are outpacing inflation slightly. Unfortunately, it’s not as much as education costs have outpaced inflation since then.

What Should We Expect From College? What Should We Expect From College?








The average cost of a public four-year university for tuition and fees was $10,950 in 1997. Accounting for inflation, tuition costs today should be $16,374.31. They actually average $20,090. This is an 83% increase over twenty years.

What Should We Expect From College?

The salaries of college educated men and women aren’t rising as fast as college expenses but they are still better than the salary of those not getting a bachelor’s degree. It’s more important than ever to go into college with a mental and financial strategy. So what should our kids expect to get out of college?


Potential for a Career

The first thing I think of for a college goal is to get some marketable skills. I want my students to acquire a fund of knowledge that makes them stand out, increases their ability to gain employment and earn a higher salary.

Going to college with the idea of taking a few classes and trying out a bit of this and a bit of that could lead to disaster. Without a goal, our students could attend three years of classes and still be looking for a degree plan they can puzzle together. If they’ve taken a directionless hodgepodge of classes, it’s usually quite difficult.

We should encourage our kids to have a focused plan before even entering a school and selecting a major. There is some leeway in the early years but as they gain more insight into their passions and goals, a degree plan should materialize quickly. When that happens, they should pursue that major with passion and intensity. Their plan should make sense for their life pursuits, and all their financial goals.

Borrowing $300K to become an elementary teacher is simply a bad financial plan. I’m not saying being an elementary teacher is bad. Thank goodness for our teachers. The fact that $300,000 is probably 5-6 times the average teacher’s salary and the monumental task of paying it back is what scares me. I know this is an extreme example, but we need to help our kids think about things like this.

We can’t allow our kids to get caught up in the college hype machine and think any degree plan will be able to pay for any college debt. A strategic plan consisting of financial limitations and lifelong career and financial goals should be discussed before setting foot on campus.


Love of Learning

Capturing a love of learning should ideally happen before college. Unfortunately, in our current school system, this doesn’t always happen. The majority of our schools stress a certain way to learn that may not cultivate the love to learn that ultimately helps a student become a lifelong learner.

I think a lot of high income earners eventually become lovers of knowledge. Although, If they are like me, they didn’t come to this realization early enough. Ideally, this would happen in the junior high years or earlier. Once students find joy in obtaining knowledge, they can’t get enough of it. Once learning is ingrained in the everyday habits of our children, the challenges of college are just another step to attaining their ultimate goals.

If your student hasn’t entered the love of learning phase, college is an excellent time to discover the amazing value. In fact, it might be the final opportunity our kids have to develop it.

Find Teachers that Help Students Love to Learn

Students have the opportunity to select more classes that match their specific interest in college than in the earlier schools. If they want to explore a few different career fields, that can be done, but they eventually need to identify a target area. It’s a balancing act of nurturing the interests the student has and following through on the course work that is required to be a well-rounded student.

Students who select professors that encourage the love to learn will have an even greater advantage. Encouraging our students to pursue a class even if it has a “tough” reputation could benefit them greatly in the future.

This love of learning is key to advancing as adults and later in their careers. Developing this love to learn and how to learn is difficult in college. Tons of information is thrust at the students in a short time but it can be and needs to be done.

Several of my friends, like myself entered college without the love to learn. We all struggled initially. Some of us found the path and continue and crave to pursue knowledge to this day. Others never did figure it out. The went on to get jobs and live life, but when we speak now, they rarely have a passion for a new subject or motivation to discover a new book or challenging idea.


Learn to Embrace Discomfort

I would venture to say a lot of high income earners were at the top of their class in junior and high school. I know this doesn’t include everyone but as I progressed in school the overwhelming majority of my fellow classmates reported easily achieving high academic marks in their elementary, junior and high school education.

That could come to a crashing halt in college, depending on the major and the university. Alluding to the recommendation before to grow to love learning earlier in life rather than later, those students that have developed and grown that love will likely accel in a university setting.

The course work is more demanding in college. The outside pressures of activities of daily living and not having Mom or Dad over the student’s shoulder every day making sure they have all their assignments done usually meets some resistance.

College is an excellent time to develop the endurance and even love of discomfort. Learning to look at situations that make our students uncomfortable or even a little painful as an opportunity and not a hindrance will give our students an advantage. As they progress in their course work and later in their careers, embracing trials as an opportunity to grow gives them an advantage over others.

The time to recognize difficult situations and step up to overcome those challenges is while they are young, energetic and not accustomed to the comforts of later adult life.

Learn From the Past

Roger Bannister, the first human to break the 4-minute mile barrier said,

The man who can drive himself further once the effort gets painful is the man who will win.


He also said:

It is the brain, not the heart or lungs, that is the critical organ.

He set out to break an impossible record that stood since time began. By the way, he did all this while he was in medical school!

When we embrace discomfort, amazing things become possible.


Develop a Network

This might be the most important task in college whether we know it or not. If you are anything like me the people I met and the relationships I developed in college and professional school have lasted to this day. They are the folks I depend on when I need professional advice. We look to each other for guidance when we reach family decisions, career decisions, and financial decisions.

One of my first friends from college just went back to medical school at the age of 39. You bet I was one of the first people he called when he wanted to become a doctor.

As parents, We need to stress the importance of this task to our kids and remind them to seek out people from diverse backgrounds that could help them attain their career and financial goals. We don’t want them to “use” people but look for ways to add value to others. If they do that, the other people will add value to them.

I think most of us parents would look back at college and have fond memories. For me, the growth and achievement during that time are difficult to match. Asserting independence, exploring new ideas and learning lifelong skills were foundational to the person I’ve become today.


What else did you get out of college? What areas of college have you discussed with your own children? Is there an aspect of college that you didn’t achieve that you regret? How do you help your kids achieve these goals?  For more articles pertaining to college check out 160 Strategies to Conquer College Expenses.

Tom is a doctor, husband and father of five with a passion for parenting and finance. When he isn't skateboarding, riding BMX, or jumping on the trampoline with his kids, he is reading and writing about personal finance. He helps high income parents educate and mentor their kids to become financially, emotionally, and intellectually self sufficient.

4 Responses to “What Should We Expect From College?

  • I ended up living at home and commuting to college, so my experience is a bit different than what you describe. That said, my parents were ‘hands off’ and I was pretty independent during my time in college. I graduated with an Electrical Engineering degree which required some intense math classes. To help cover the costs (and for my own spending money), I also worked all throughout college. The combination of working and some pretty tough classes certainly helped me mature and gain a strong work ethic.

    Our kids are now college age. Our older son spent a semester at college, but decided college is not for him. He has some ideas on what he would like to pursue… takes some time for a 19-year-old to figure things out. Our younger son will be attending our state university this fall. He has a good idea of what he wants to study.

    • Thanks for giving us your experience Mr. N2S. I lived at home as well for the first couple of years but I was probably more independent than my parents wanted.
      I was basically gone from 7am to 10pm everyday with classes, work and studying. I think it was a good transition, but by the time I was a senior, I had the life skills to take care of myself. That is what I want for my own kids.

      Tom @ HIP

  • I agree students should try and have a plan for college but the fact of the matter is they usually do not. Most change their major multiple times and even fewer actually get a job in a field their degree is in. Having the piece of paper is huge in the job market but it’s also important to have a degree that carries weight that you can market to employers. Just like you mentioned, just make sure the degree has potential for paying for itself down the line. If not, some may be better off working a trade and beginning to invest early without taking on unneeded debt.

    • I’ve looked for information about what percent of people use their degree in their degree field and I haven’t found exact stats.
      If it’s not 100% (and we know it isn’t) then having the diploma has value in itself. Quantifying that value is difficult.
      Like you said, making sure the degree can pay for itself is a big factor when I’m talking to my kids about finding a major that they like.

      Tom @ HIP

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