American universities took in a record $40.31 billion last year.  The richest universities, such as Stanford and Harvard, dominated the list of recipients.

Debt statueWhat does that mean? It means, on average, people are paying a lot of money to get an education. Some students are left with up to $400,000 in debt by the time they graduate college. So why do schools still charge tuition when they bring in so much money? With endowments worth more than $30 billion and modest student populations, there’s only one reason such institutions still charge a nickel of tuition – they want to spend the funds elsewhere. Is it really worth it for students to spend their money for a college education?

There is no doubt that some educations, like becoming a doctor or lawyer, are absolutely necessary to go through to get a job in the field. No one wants an uneducated surgeon operating on them. For these jobs, one must get a degree. However, that does not indicate that these degrees need to be so ridiculously expensive.

Studies support that for schools like Harvard, Stanford, and a host of others, their lowest possible cost isn’t zero. Even if they invested their endowments in simple U.S. Treasury bonds, they could actually pay students to attend and still grow their portfolios. Amazingly, this never enters the conversation.

And what about other degrees that aren’t a definite requirement for the respective field?

Many statistics show that people with college degrees earn more money in their lifetime, usually said to be about a million more dollars in a 40 year working period. Since a degree doesn’t cost a million dollars, it’s easy to say that generally an education is going to help you both outperform others and make more money in the long run. But there’s more to it than that.

It really depends on three things: What degree you study, what you decide to do with it, and what you could have done if you hadn’t spent all that time (and money!) on the degree. Some degrees, like arts and humanity degrees, can often be relatively useless in terms of typical pay when you graduate. They can actually set you back tens of thousands of dollars each year. If these people had started working when they were 18, they would have made more money than their degree would earn them and have lots of job experience on top of it.

If they are smart, they could start to invest and compound their money at an early age instead of going backwards into debt. Then they could dramatically propel themselves forward to have hundreds of thousands dollars more for retirement, if not millions.

Then there’s the people who earn a degree, but can’t get a job in the field because there’s not enough demand or too much competition. Some people, like business majors, could be better off simply pursuing their ideas early, building a foundation, and learning the field as they go rather than spending a bunch of money on an education.

In the end, students today should be asked to think about more than just a college education. They could be wasting valuable time and money when another path could be much more fruitful. If the degree does not quickly pay off the mountains of possible debt, does not provide prolific job opportunities, or could be learned by joining the field without college, a university may be the last option the aspiring generation should consider.