Counting cost of college loans should be as easy as counting hamburger calories

I vaguely remember the first time I saw 1,050 calories listed beside a quarter-pounder meal at McDonald’s.

This was back in 2012, and my high school brain couldn’t comprehend how that many calories could be concentrated in such a tasty burger, fries and soda.

Needless to say, I’m a fan of this type of easily quantifiable and useful information. If you know the number of calories you should eat in a day, then you can easily deduce what you should eat and drink throughout the day.

It’s not an exact science, but these ballpark estimates will point you in the right direction.

This quantifiable and useful information is noticeably absent though from the realm of higher education.

When perusing university and college planning websites, you’ll find a lot of information about graduation rates, faculty-to-student ratios, extracurriculars and financial aid.

This is all important stuff, with financial aid being closer to what I’m looking for, yet it’s still only one half of the equation.

The result is that there is no “calorie” listing when you visit a university’s website. No one is actively telling you how much a student will earn after graduation, the key element in any return-on-investment calculation.

Now, there is probably a campus crusader out there who would decry my materialistic concerns, but if the past few election cycles have proven anything, it’s that high levels of student debt combined with low-paying jobs is not a fun experience.

Thankfully, in 2019 the Department of Education released information on debt levels and income for recent graduates at nearly every university in the country as well as for most degrees.

The Wall Street Journal was then able to create a tool for students and parents to review these universities and degrees. You can find this tool in the Wall Street Journal article titled, “Which College Graduates Make the Most?”

I would encourage every parent, counselor and mentor to keep The Wall Street Journal’s tool in mind when researching universities with students.

For decades, young Americans have been explicitly and implicitly taught that a college education is the key to success — and it still is in most cases.

Multiple studies show that a college education continues to lead to higher lifetime earnings when compared to a high school education.

However, in the past decade many college graduates have learned the tough lesson that some degrees are worth more than others. This discrepancy between expectations and outcomes has led to much individual and societal pain and an astronomic increase in private debt.

I’ll admit, it’s not all about income.

Though I think even George Lucas would agree there’s an unsafe amount of debt for an education in film studies.

Other careers also may have low immediate earnings, due to factors such as residency requirements, but later experience rapid and profound growth.

You also can’t discount the job security entirely separate careers provide.

Like calorie listings, conversations surrounding post-graduate income and debt levels are nuanced and need to fit the needs of the individual.

Despite all these variables, when reviewing future education opportunities, it never hurts to check a degree’s calorie content to make an informed decision.

Nicholas Haberling is a partnership advisor for Community First Bank | HFG Trust in Kennewick.

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