Opinion: College education doesn't have to break you financially

A classroom at Norwalk Community College in 2018.

A classroom at Norwalk Community College in 2018.

Erik Trautmann/Hearst Connecticut Media

A college education of any kind, regardless of the school you choose, can be a wonderful investment in your future. Or it can be a complete waste of time. Like any sound investment strategy, it depends on how wisely people spend their money.

Too often these days, young people use college admissions as a high-priced form of competition, a race to see who can get into the most schools and who can get into the top-ranked and most expensive schools in the nation. And to me, as someone who has advised people how to invest their money for more than three decades, that doesn’t make much sense.

Your college education does not have to break you financially; in fact it most definitely should not. If your kids are going to go to college, their education should be an affordable track they can take towards a successful career. And I want to underline the word affordable.

Because to put it bluntly, I personally know many highly successful people — people who have earned tens of millions of dollars — who never went to a so-called “elite” college. And some who didn’t go to college at all.

This is not to put down those who wish to go to college, or to pit the more prestigious private colleges and universities against the less-expensive state ones. This is about making the smart decisions that lead to a brighter future for young people.

The most important thing for young people and their families to do as they plan for college is get rid of the mind-set that the college they choose will dictate their future. It won’t.

You can be just as successful attending a state school in Connecticut — where our state school system, including colleges, is of excellent quality — than if you attend a “blue chip” school. And the difference can be tens of thousands of dollars a year. Would you rather owe, say, $25,000 in student loans at the end of a four-year college experience, or two to three times that? Because that kind of debt could be what waits at graduation if the college costs you $70,000 to $80,000 a year.

And this very notion of taking the more affordable route can have a tremendous impact on families as they plan to send kids to college. If you and your children can decide that a state school works just as well for their chosen field as a more expensive private one, it can help inform other decisions you make in paying for it.

The biggest one is borrowing against your retirement to send your kids to college, something no parent should ever consider doing. It is literally mortgaging your future to pay for the present. And if you determine the college education can cost half of what you expected simply choosing a state school, it can take some of the pressure off that leads to unwise financial decisions.

Another is how you choose to borrow money. Government-subsidized student loans are very popular for a number of good reasons — you can take your time paying them back, they are guaranteed by the federal government and they are far less expensive than private, nonsubsidized loans. If you open a 529 college savings count earlier and invest over the years, the amount in subsidized student loans you need can be heavily diminished. And if you access any of the hundreds of local scholarships available each year, the education can become even more affordable.

Lastly, and this was alluded to earlier but cannot be stressed enough, is to stop making college acceptance a competition. Why should it matter if one student gets into 14 schools while another only gets into three? You can only attend one of them, after all. Instead of making it a contest, choose your path — which, by the way, could also be a trade school, which can lead to highly lucrative careers at the fraction of the cost of event a four-year state college — and find the handful of schools that best get you on that path. This message goes out to parents as much as students, perhaps even more so, because the idea of your status improving based on the number of schools your child was accepted to is absurd.

I have four children. Between them they went to state schools, into the military or straight into the workforce. All are doing well right now and succeeding on their own paths, because the path they chose was built around the idea of individualized future success, and wasn’t dependent on the prestige of any particularly educational institution.

The truth is in today’s society, a four-year college education no longer dictates future success in and of itself, nor is it even required in some instances. And if we can change that mind-set, we may see a lot more people doing what they want to do for a living, rather than trying to play some role they think they have to play.

Because in the end, a person’s education and future should be about the quality of that person. Not the name of the institution on the degree.

Joel Johnson is managing partner of Johnson Brunetti, a Connecticut-based retirement and investment firm. He is a resident of Tolland.