Before making any investment, research is important. What are the costs and benefits? What are the risks to achieving the benefits and containing the costs? What are the ranges of outcomes and the probabilities of success? What qualitative aspects are important in addition to the quantitative analysis?

My decision to major in business administration with a concentration in accounting was not based upon extensive quantitative or qualitative research, but anecdotal evidence, self-reflection, and happenstance. I enjoyed my high school science and mathematics classes, and considered nursing or some other medicine-related career. Alas, my klutziness in the laboratory didn’t portend well for a career in medicine (first, do no harm . . . ). A chance conversation with an older relative practicing accounting revealed that he enjoyed his work, accounting jobs with attractive compensation would probably be available upon graduation, the prospect that an accounting background can lead to other opportunities, and local universities had good programs. I didn’t know with certainty what an accountant did or whether I would enjoy the work, but it seemed a reasonable direction to take.

For today’s families contemplating an investment in college, the current challenging job market may seem discouraging. The costs (tuition and time) are known, but the returns are less certain and difficult to measure. My college experience provided much more than a specific marketable trade. I discovered an interest in economics that led to pursuing a second major. I started a path of learning and skill building that continues today, including time management, public speaking, and team-building. Education provided a framework to navigate an unforeseen career path to risk management.

An investment in a college degree is not the right choice for everyone. Legendary, brilliant entrepreneurs come to mind, for whom formal courses of study were not enjoyable and the timing would have impeded their rapid progress or caused them to miss precisely striking a market opportunity. Also, individuals with specialized talents or skills may choose to pursue a career without a college degree. The ordinary smart and ambitious person will likely choose a college education to prepare for a desirable career. Once the decision to invest is made, the next decision is the amount of investment. With the escalating costs of tuition, families must carefully assess education and financing choices in light of the potential impact of debt payments on lifestyle post-college.

In retrospect, my 17-year-old self did assess the costs (chose a public university), benefits (job, enjoyment) and range of outcomes (reasonable compensation, skills adaptable to other career paths). Investment in a college education has provided me with a premium return: work and a lifestyle I enjoy.