How Should Christians Count the Cost of a College Education?

College_CostHigher education has taken a lot of heat in the past few years. Many pundits and families are starting to question the value of a college degree. Time Magazine listed “questioning the value of higher education” as one of the top-ten consumer trends of 2012. Last fall, Newsweek ran a cover story asking the question “Is College A Lousy Investment?” (related video). Last week, the newest research from Pew’s Economic Mobility Project, revealed that a four-year college degree helped shield the latest graduates from a range of poor employment outcomes during the recession. There is now plenty of “research” to support both sides of the argument. It’s enough to make your head spin.

Not too long ago, a study by Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce revealed the earning potential of different college majors. It turns out, not surprisingly, that people who major in engineering, physical sciences and business make more money than students with degrees in the arts, education or psychology. This quote from one of the researches really stuck out to me: “This is going to be the real course catalog for parents and students.” Meaning, families will look to this research when making decisions on colleges to attend and courses to take. Should that be the case? Here’s a question we might miss: What is higher education for?

For Christians I think there can be some real tension here. On the one hand, we want to make wise decisions about college, not over spending and accumulating debt for something that isn’t worth the money. I’ve watched too many students and parents go into crippling debt to obtain a degree that may take a lifetime to pay off. On the other hand, followers of Christ are motivated by different factors when it comes to work and career and live life based on a very different definition of success. In losing life, we find it. A life well-lived is in service to God and neighbor. There’s more to college (and life) than the “earning” potential of a college degree.

My advice would be this: keep both of these factors in tension. Make wise financial decisions about college, avoiding debt as much as possible. And, be attentive to God’s lead, asking good questions about the motivations of your heart as you decide on a college and a major. As followers of Jesus, as with all decisions, we must always be willing to count the cost of discipleship.