The Value of College: The Parents’ Perspective

June 07, 2017


value of college


Every year, families experience angst figuring out how to pay for college, but what do parents really think about the value of college?


Next to the two respectable cars in the driveway of Patrick and Elizabeth McGrath’s well-kept home in Chicago’s Northside suburbs, is parked a new, fire-engine red Mini Cooper S, with a license plate declaring the owner a DePaul Graduate. “You don’t wanna know how much that cost me,” jokes Patrick. And while it seems unlikely that the cost of his daughter’s college has been the most pressing issue in the leafy suburbs of Wilmette, Illinois, it’s also clear he’s talking about more than just the car.


With the recent graduation of the couple’s younger daughter Norah utmost in their minds, the McGrath’s are mulling over the value of college. Elizabeth, herself a DePaul University graduate, used her degree to build a successful career as an executive at a healthcare company. Her husband took the entrepreneurial track, apprenticing in high school and opening his own small engineering business in the city. “It never occurred to us that the kids wouldn’t go to college,” she says. “Why wouldn’t we want to give them every opportunity?” Yet despite the eagerly offered graduation photos and optimistic talk of the future, what’s clear is that the McGraths are worried.


Preparing for a Fulfilling Career

As the Class of 2017 enters the job market, they’re likely to be buoyed by some encouraging news. The unemployment rate, currently at 4.4 percent, is at its lowest level in more than a decade, with many employers saying they’re actively looking to hire grads, but Elizabeth recognizes her daughter is facing a very different career environment. “I just think it’s going to be very different for them,” she says. “They’re probably not going to stay in the same field for their entire career, and they’ll definitely change jobs more often than our generation.” She’s also discouraged by news she’s heard that her daughter’s generation may be the first to earn less than their parents, and that despite promising beginnings, her daughter is likely to face completely different professional and financial barriers to her success.


As the Class of 2017 enters the job market, they’re likely to be buoyed by some encouraging news — the unemployment rate, currently at 4.4 percent, is at its lowest level in more than a decade.


Those kinds of worries are also shared by students. A recent Barnes & Noble College survey of college seniors revealed that “earning enough money” topped the list of major concerns by more than two-thirds of students, followed by “difficulty finding a job.” Additionally, almost half of respondents specifically cited student loans as another significant concern. Even with help from her parents and some savings of her own, Patrick shakes his head when he thinks about his daughter earning enough to get a foothold on the mortgage ladder — or even afford a rental in downtown Chicago while she’s trying to pay off her student loans. “Honestly, I think (they’ll) do just fine in the long run,” he says, “but I also think getting established in a career is going to be harder — and will take longer than anyone thinks.”


McGrath also acknowledges his daughter’s generation has a different mindset about the world of work and the definition of success. The Value of College, a study released last year by Barnes & Noble College and Money magazine, reported that 90 percent of students (and their parents) rated “preparing for a fulfilling career” as a very, or extremely valuable benefit of a college education — almost 20 percentage points higher than the number who rated the same for “preparing for a high-paying career.” “Yes, I totally agree with that,” Patrick says. “You’re going to want your kids to do something they enjoy and can be successful at — I just hope it comes with a few more zeros at the end,” he adds.


Optimism and Apprehension

The Barnes & Noble College survey revealed that, across the board, the class of 2017 is unsure about their future, with responses equally divided between being apprehensive and optimistic. It also reflects similar views of parents who, while trying to be encouraging, recognize the challenges ahead that their children will face. “I don’t think anything could persuade us to think that college isn’t a good investment,” Elizabeth says. “You have to believe there’s going to be a reward for a better, more rounded education,” she adds.


Clearly, this year’s crop of graduates think so, too. Many are deciding to put their career search on hold in favor of staying in school, with more than one-third enrolling in a graduate or professional degree program. The McGrath’s daughter, Norah, will be following a similar post-graduation path cited by nearly a quarter of respondents in the Barnes & Noble College survey: traveling. Celebrating her hard-earned graduation by de-stressing in Europe, for this summer at least, she’s leaving the worrying to her parents.



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