Not too long ago, the Pew Research Center found that a majority of Americans (57 percent) now believe that the higher education system in the United States ‘fails to provide students with good value for the money they and their families spend.”

It’s making quite the stir – with debate flying across the water cooler to the college blogoshpere, reaching all the way to pundits and panelists on NPR and CNN.  For the first time, people are publicly asking a question that I once thought unthinkable: Is college worth the cost?

Of course, I want to weigh in.  And what I really want to say is an emphatic YES!  But I can’t.  Because it’s not…  always… If you finance your entire eductation investment with debt, you are not going to get the best return on that investment.  Last year student debt toppped consumer credit card debt for the first time, and just last month The New York Times reported that college debt may hit  a trillion dollars this year.  Not good.  Not good at all.  Many of you know how much I abhor the slippery slope that excessive debt creates for our children and how for years now, I’ve been warning my subscribers of a looming student loan bubble that could make the mortgage meltdown seem quaint.

So rather than ask whether college is worth the cost,  I offer this answer instead:  Make College Worth The Cost!

With proper admissions and financial planning (at the outset), you will be able to help your children get into great schools that won’t require mortgaging their future or sacrificing yours. You see, Pew wasn’t the only report on college that came out last week. In a new study from the National Association of College and University Business Officers (the guys that actually set and then discount college prices), it was revealed that nearly 88 percent of first-time, full-time undergraduates received institutional grants (that’s free money) in the form of ‘discounts’ in 2010.  That’s about 6 percentage points higher than I had been projecting from my soap box all year (ahh, validation) and a jump of about 5 percentage points from 2007 and 10 percentage points from 2001.  Of note as well:  about 71 percent of that ‘aid’ was given out to students who demonstrated financial need, which means that 29 percent of that money was awarded on non-need criteria to students who demonstrated value to the institution.

I’m not talking about a little bit either.  And I’m not talking in the theoretic.  Most of our graduating seniors whom we helped demonstrate need, value and desire, received significant offers ($14- $50+K) from great schools such as Union, UM, Southern Cal, Brandeis, Davidson, Duke, UCF, USF, UF, Alma College, George Washington, Tufts, among others.  At this point, only two schools remain on my ‘disslist’ for not living up to their ‘generosity’ billing/branding – The University of Pennsylvania and Barry University, with MIT a not so distant third.

This is important for a few reasons.

1. The right college at the right price is most definitely worth the investment. Last year, for example, when national unemployment was around 11%, it was only 4.5% (full employment) for college graduates 25 and over!  And in the aggregate, college graduates still out-earn non-graduates by about $1.2 million over the course of a lifetime.

2. College is within your reach, but to find and get into the right college at the right price, you have to plan early and you have to have a family-centric and integrated admissions strategy that considers: how much financial need you’ll be able to demonstrate; which colleges are likely to meet that need; where your student might have leverage (value); and how to demonstrate that value to the ‘recruiters’ of those schools!

3. College is not 13th grade!  Too many students enter college without a plan, without a vision for their academic or professional future, like a rudderless ship tossed around without direction.  The investment is more worthwhile if students bring a sense of commitment to the campus. The 4 year vacation (or 5+ years) with football and basketball season tickets is the wrong formula for a positive college ROI.  That’s why this is a ‘family’ process – it’s not just about the student, and not just about the money.

There are some great resources and tools out there including a new college ROI calculator at payscale.com, but the best place to start is to determine where your student might want to go and compare that list with schools they are likely to get into at the head of the class… and then, determine how much those colleges ‘cost’ versus how much you’re actually going to have to pay to go there!  Those are two different numbers, and I discuss both at my free workshops.  The next one is June 23rd and it’s in Pinecrest (South Miami).  If you’d like more immediate information, then download my free resource guide.  And if your student is about to be a rising 12th grader, consider sending them to my Admissions & Application Bootcamp – this is the best head start they’ll get all summer.

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