College Choices in the Game of Life

A recent article in The Chicago Tribune about college and affordability caught my eye and generated some conversation with my friends. It’s by a current college junior who’d dreamed of going to Northwestern and becoming a journalist since she was 8. She worked towards that goal for a decade and had plotted out the following 15 years which hinged upon going to school there. And when it came time for applications and admissions, she was accepted. Then reality set in. Even with the scholarships she could find, planning with her guidance counselor, and help from Northwestern, the costs were simply beyond what she and her family could afford. She made a mature analysis of it and couldn’t make it work. The lengths she went to dragged her past the deadline to accept another offer and she took a year off. It upset her 15 year plan quite a bit. Three years later, she’s extremely happy with where she’s at and where she’s going.

I’m at a point where college financing for my kids is right-now relevant. I’ve got friends who went to private universities, public ones, went to school without graduating, and others who didn’t go to college only to become anything varying from tradesmen to business owners to C-level executives. They’re all solid people who don’t equate real life to the board game Life™ where the goal is to make it to the end and retire at Millionaire Estates with the biggest pile of cash. While the first job you get in both scenarios is dependent on your education, the ones you spend most of your life doing aren’t. After a certain point, nobody asks you where – or whether – you went to college. Sure there are routes which absolutely depend on residencies, tests, apprenticeships, and certifications. There are plenty which don’t.

I made the comparison to the Game of Life™ because there’s a very similar choice at the beginning. You can start college which costs $100,000 or start a job debt-free. As you can see, there’s plenty of chances to incur even more debt at school. During family game night, I’ve taken to skipping college. I get a head start and it can take a long time to dig yourself out from that loan which I avoid. If you’ve got a good strategy, you can work your way into a great job and win the game. Life™ doesn’t necessarily reward you for taking the college option.
The game starts out the way real life does. There are always tradeoffs.
The game starts out the way real life does. There are always tradeoffs.
That’s similar to the real world. Education costs have gotten so high that it doesn’t make any sense to pursue a degree in a limited field in which you can’t make enough to pay it off. That’s clearly got some implications on society and the arts which I’m not going to talk about here. At an individual or family level, it makes you think long and hard about how you save and go about things. Many of the friends I’ve got who went to private universities aren’t considering that route for their kids. The ones who are have calculated things out and very much factor scholarships and cost of financial aid into the the choice. I live in Georgia which has a program which pays a good amount of tuition if the student keeps their GPA up at a school in the stat university system. There’s fabulous options which make it doable for many families.

Working towards a viable vocation at this phase is what’s important. There are a lot of dynamics at play. Automation is playing a larger and larger role in the economy. Some jobs have a foreseeable end-of-life or decreasing relevance. Others will be done in different ways with different technologies. And some tasks haven’t come to prominence at all yet. The technology space is changing rapidly enough that curricula can’t keep pace in some cases. In any event, students have to realize that the learning they start after they graduate high school is only the beginning. Picking a course of learning isn’t a static thing.

The monumental decision of going to Northwestern or choosing another school was a big step for the author of that article. The commitment to pursuing a dream may mean that you have to find a different path or you may end up pushing yourself in another direction. The more I think about it, I recognize that most of the people I know aren’t doing the job they dreamed of growing up. That doesn’t mean they settled, it means that the path through real-life isn’t linear and that what you do isn’t set in stone. Lastly, there’s nobody who “wins” the game of real life. It’s not a balance sheet, it’s how you spend the time and who you spend it with.

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