Private Colleges May Not Be Worth the Price of Admission

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Whether you're a parent wanting the best for their children or a student hoping to launch a dream career after college, you've likely spent a lot of time thinking about choosing the right college. Even though tuition is getting more and more expensive (consistently exceeding the rate of inflation), a college education still provides the best chance for employment in "the real world." College grads are much more likely to have jobs and earn more money than those without degrees.

Given that, you might expect that the more exclusive and prestigious the college you attend, the better your chances for increased success. But given the enormous and growing burden of student loan debt on recent grads, it's reasonable to ask: Are private colleges really worth their expensive tuition?

What You Pay for at Private Colleges

There are no blanket rules for colleges, but in general, higher-priced private colleges offer benefits that public schools don't provide.

Class sizes are usually smaller, which means students receive more personal attention. This can make a big difference for students who are highly engaged -- and even more so for students who might struggle without enough one-on-one time with professors and advisers.

Instructors at private colleges spend less time on research, which gives them more time for students. Fewer courses are taught by grad students. And the campus community as a whole is often more close-knit, with lots of support for current students, new graduates and alumni.

But all this is not to say these value-added aspects can't be found at public (or less expensive) schools. Parents and students should examine potential universities individually.

What to Consider When Choosing a School

Your degree is a tool you will use after graduation to launch you into a career (hopefully in a field you want), so it's tempting to think that the better the reputation of the university that degree came from, the better your chances are of securing your dream job.

This is not the most important rule. It's much more important that you consider the degree you want and then choose a school that specializes in that field or offers a degree program that's recognized as excellent in that particular industry.

For example, New York University is a private college known for film studies and the performing arts. If you're interested in pursuing a career in one of those areas, NYU might be a wise investment. However, consider the amount of debt you'll have to take on to get a degree from that school. (In 2011, it averaged more than $33,000.) If you want a career in the arts, starting off free of college debt might make it far easier. You'll be able to take a lower paying position in the field you love because you won't have high student loan payments hanging over your head each month. (I learned a lot of valuable skills as a theater major, but I did so at a public university.)

If you want a more general degree -- such as teaching, marketing or English -- it might make more sense for your career -- and your personal finances -- to choose a public university known for having excellent professors in that department.

Digging Down to the Good Stuff: Potential Earnings and ROI

Finding a school that provides a good fit for you and your future career is important -- but we can't ignore the money. Is there any truth in the belief that a private school's prestige and education leads to a better return on investment? In other words, do private schools set up graduates for higher future earnings? Again, much depends on the degree you want. You need to align your college choice with your career goals.

If you want to pursue engineering, for example, the three schools ranked for highest return on investment are all public universities. takes almost 3,000 words to explain its methodology, but the key is this: "The investment is the cost of college as determined by the actual cost of attending college. The return (gain) is the additional expected future income stream received for being a college graduate." While private engineering schools do offer positive ROI, many lag a few percentage behind their public counterparts. The same goes for research schools. Of the top 10 schools that provide the highest ROI, number one and number two were public universities. (The state school ranked with the absolute highest ROI? Georgia Tech.)

On the other hand, private business school and private liberal arts colleges are most likely to provide the highest ROI in their respective specialties. And none of the private schools listed in Payscale's data showed negative returns. The lowest reported was around 3 percent and showed up in the category that collectively had the lowest ROIs: art schools.

If a private university is something you can afford, your future career is unlikely to be hurt by your prestigious education. But it's not the sole determining factor in your earnings potential after graduation.

You Determine the Value of Your Experiences and Education

Students have a lot of say in the value they receive from their education, no matter what school they graduated from. This is good news, because it means you don't have to pony up hundreds of thousands of dollars to succeed after college. But it also means that it's your responsibility as a student to make the most of any college education. You have the power to make decisions to increase the return on your financial investment.

Show up to class ready to learn something that increases your marketable skills and abilities. Volunteer in groups or clubs on campus to broaden your experience. Manage free time wisely, and use some of it to intern or work a paying part-time job in your career.

As a financial planner, I've worked with millennials across the country who are stressed out about their high student loan debts, and who wish they'd gone to less expensive colleges. I have yet to speak to one who said they wished they'd gone to a more expensive college -- regardless of prestige-- and graduated with more student loan debt.

The bottom line: A private, expensive education isn't required for success. What you do with the education you earned -- wherever you earned it from -- is a crucial factor in determining how well you do in life after college.

Sophia Bera is a virtual financial planner for millennials and the founder of Gen Y Planning. She is location independent but calls Minneapolis her home. Do you want to be better with your money than 90% of your friends? Then sign up for the Gen Y Planning newsletter for this awesome guide - FREE!

10 Financial Rules You Should Break
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Private Colleges May Not Be Worth the Price of Admission

This is the granddaddy of them all. Start to type "emergency" into Google (GOOG), and the first suggestion is "emergency fund." The rule is to make sure you have six month's of living expenses tucked away in cash in case you losefyour job or suffer a financial setback. Of course it's important to have a financial safety net, but when you earn virtually nothing on your cash, this rule can cost you. For example, if six months of living expenses for you is $25,000, you'd be sacrificing close to $1,000 of income a year by keeping this money in a checking or money market account.

For years, I've broken the mold on this financial rule by telling clients they shouldn't have their emergency fund in cash. Instead, choose a short-term bond fund that pays 3 percent or higher for your safety net. If you need the money quickly, you can easily sell the fund and get access to the cash. If you don't need the cash –- and these emergency fund accounts are rarely used –- you can still make money on the assets.

Not so fast. There are many good reasons to contribute to a 401(k), such as tax savings, tax-deferred growth and a possible employer match, but there are also good reasons not to contribute as well. Don't blindly dump money into your 401(k) if you don't have an emergency reserve of some sort and there is a chance you will be laid off. It is taking longer for most to find a job, so if you think you may be out of work, make sure you have the resources to pay rent and buy food until you land a new job. 

​Also, if your employer doesn't provide a match and you are in a low-income tax bracket, it may make more sense to pay the tax now (since you are in a low tax bracket) and invest in a Roth individual retirement account instead. Use this 401(k) vs. Roth IRA calculator to crunch the numbers.

You cannot cut your way to wealth. Too many people and financial advisers focus on trimming expenses when they should be focused on the other half of the equation -- income. I'm a proponent for living within one's means, but too often that creates an artificial barrier or ceiling. "This is what I make, so I have to cut back to save more," is often the thought process. Rather than living within your mean, work on increasing your means.

There are many ways you can make more money, including asking for a raise, boosting your skills –- your human capital –- and getting a promotion, starting a side project in the after-hours or going back to school and starting a new career. What you make today is not necessarily what you can make tomorrow. Cut unnecessary expenses and then use your energy to increase your income.

You should only save for your children's education if you can afford it. That means when you're on track to having enough assets for your retirement. Assuming you have the retirement assets and now want to save for college, most advisers will recommend a 529 college savings account.

Not so fast. These 529 accounts have some real advantages, such as tax-free growth of contributions if they are used for approved higher education expenses. This tax-free growth is a big benefit. However, if you withdraw money from this account and do not use it for approved higher education expenses, the gains will be subject to ordinary income tax and a 10 percent penalty.

The big risk is if you fully fund your child's college education but he or she decides to not go to college, drops out, finishes early or goes to a less expensive school. You have the ability change the beneficiary to another qualifying family member without penalty, but if you have just one child, there may not be anyone you can transfer the funds to. You would then have to liquidate the account and pay the tax and penalty. If you are undeterred and still want to pay for your child's college education, start with a small contribution into the 529 and fund up to a maximum of 60 percent of the cost in case one of the above scenarios occur.

The average age of cars on U.S. roads is 11.4 years. So if you're average, then it may make sense for you to buy a car -– especially a car a year or two old –- instead of leasing. However, if you do not intend on driving the same car for over a decade, a lease may be a much better option. A new study by found it was better to lease than buy based on its criteria. And under certain circumstances, you may be afforded a larger business deduction with a lease compared to a purchase.

The certified financial planner designation is the gold standard when it comes to financial planning. I wouldn't think of hiring a financial planner if they weren't a CFP practitioner. However, just because you are working with a CFP doesn't mean you shouldn't research your adviser, his or her areas of expertise and how he or she charges. The CFP tells you he or she has advanced training in areas related to tax, investing and retirement planning; has passed a comprehensive and difficult exam; and has agreed to adhere to a high code of ethics.

The onus is on you to know what you need and to make sure your CFP financial planner can deliver. Don't get lulled into thinking that just because he or she have three letters after his or her name that he or she has been screened. Ask tough questions before you trust your money to anyone -– even a CFP.

Most financial pundits will advise taxpayers to have just enough taken out of their paycheck so when April 15 comes around, they will neither owe money nor receive a refund. The rationale is if you get a refund from the Internal Revenue Service, it means you paid too much in over the year -- and the government has had use of your money without paying you any interest. Keep the money and invest it yourself is the theory.

'Again, that's the theory, but reality is much different. It all comes down to psychology. I look at paying a bit more to the IRS as a forced and automatic savings account. Sure you won't earn interest, but human nature tells us you probably won't save the money anyway. There is a greater chance you will squander $100 a paycheck then if you receive a $2,400 check from the IRS. One approach takes a plan and discipline each month to save and invest while the other doesn't. A check from the IRS isn't an interest-free loan; it is an automatic savings plan.

Nobody wants to endure an IRS audit, but too often I see honest and ethical taxpayers avoid claiming certain deductions or taking certain positions that are completely legitimate because they fear it will increase their chances of an audit. First, your chances of being audited are small –- about 1 in 104 chance. If your return doesn't include income from a business, rental real estate or farm, or employee business expense deductions, your chances are even smaller -– 1 in 250. Second, if you and your tax preparer are not crossing the line, you have little to worry about. In fact, thousands of taxpayers get a check from the IRS at the end of the audit. Don't let a small chance of an audit keep you from taking advantage of every tax strategy for which you qualify.

Do what you love, and you'll never have to work a day in your life, or so the saying goes. It sounds good and feels good, but it's not necessarily true. Sometimes –- often, actually –- doing what you love can be a great hobby but not a good career. There are a lot of things I enjoy that I'll never make a dime doing. A better approach is to find something you enjoy, are good at and that you can get paid to That is the financial trinity you should aspire to find because it ties your interests with your skills with the marketplace

Follow this rule, and I'll send you straight to detention. We know college costs are soaring, and we don't want to bury our kids in college debt, so most parents prioritize college saving over retirement saving. Big mistake. If worse comes to worst, Junior can get a loan, work while in school or go to a less expensive school. Basically, Junior has decent options, and you have tough choices. 

​If you haven't saved enough for retirement, you are stuck. There's very little you can do other than slash your expenses, work longer or both. Save for your own retirement first. That's the financial rule you should follow. If you have amassed so much wealth when your children head off to college that you can afford to help them, go for it. If you haven't, you'd be doing your kids a disservice by jeopardizing your own retirement by paying for their tuition.


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