A reader and his wife are arguing about college for their son.

Question: Our son graduates from high school in June and has been accepted to our local community college, a state university, and two out-of-state universities. But he’s totally bored with the whole idea of college.

I don’t want to take out loans for him to go to college if he’s not going to work hard — and graduate and get a high-paying job that’ll make it all worth it. So I want him to take a year off and work with me at my shop, where he can learn what he wants. My wife is furious. She thinks we need to ship him off to school so he can grow up. 

When he was born, we set some money aside for our son’s college, and we’ve paid off everything but our mortgage. Then again, we got almost nothing saved for our retirement. So who’s right, Howard?

— Leslie in Michigan

Howard Dvorkin CPA answers…

This is such a complicated question that, if you’re a regular Debt.com reader, you could easily become confused.

We’ve written that despite the skyrocketing costs, a college degree is still more valuable over time. Then again, we compiled an interactive map that showed some colleges are definitely not more valuable over time.

We’ve also reported on one poll that showed most everyone thinks college is worth it — and another poll that showed most adults think college is a waste of time and money.

The problem, of course, is that one size doesn’t fit everyone. It also depends on your profession. As a CPA and financial counselor, I have two degrees and numerous certifications. Then again, I’ve worked with many talented people who are experts in their field, and they have no degrees — because those fields don’t require them.

Of course, none of this helps you with your son, Leslie. So let’s break it down…

1. Working before college

Your idea of letting your son work a year before heading off to college is a time-honored and proven one. However, it may be better for him not to work with you.

Your wife wants your son to leave home as much to grow up as ace college courses. You might want to consider pointing him to entry-level work at companies that offer “tuition assistance.” Debt.com has compiled a list called The 10 Best Companies That Will Pay For Your College.

Not only will this make a dent in his eventual college costs, but your son will learn new skills and have to relate to new people.

2. Splitting the difference

You mention that your son has been accepted to community college. I love community colleges. The first two years of college are required courses that differ much less than you think from school to school. Tuition is cheaper, and if he lives at home, the savings are substantial.

On a related topic: I recommend parents charge their children rent after they graduate from high school. You can set this money aside for them later; but it’s important for them to learn financial life skills that are seldom taught in school.

If your son learns to love school, he can leave home for the next two years as a more mature and better financed student. Your wife will still see her goals achieved.

3. Don’t go to college at all

Last year, I receiveda similar question to yours, Leslie. Except it was from a young man whose parents were fighting about whether to send him to college. I consulted my fellow financial expert Steve Rhode, because he has a unique and bold perspective on this issue. Known as the Get Out of Debt Guy, Steve says don’t go to college at all if you don’t want to:

On-screen text: Debt.com Presents: Don’t get screwed by student loans…don’t go to college!

Steve Rhode: Let’s talk about student loans for a second. It’s a really perplexing topic because there’s this assumption that we all need to go to school, go to college, and it’s going to create a better future. But if we’re talking about numbers, the most disturbing number I think is that about 75% of people with student loan debt never graduate from school. They never have the degree.

So they have the burden without the benefit, and they do feel completely hopeless. I mean, at least with federal loans, there are some programs that can lower your payment, but the problem is right now those create such a massive tax forgiveness burden in the future that they’re in trouble there too. When it comes to private loans, which people are getting like water, there’s really no relief from those private loans. And then the private lenders are not making any sort of accommodation to help people.

It’s almost like they were hooked into school, and too bad. So there’s this assumption that school is good. You go to school and they have a financial aid office and the financial aid office helps you to get the loan, so now you’re going more in debt. The school is helping you. The school’s motive is to sell butts into seats to make money and not provide you necessarily with a great education or even to help you graduate. And so you end up with people who feel like losers, ashamed, burdened, they don’t see any way out, because they thought they did the right thing and now they’re just totally financially screwed.

On-screen text: Think differently, learn better, save more!

Stever Rhode: Sometimes people are like lemmings and they just follow, “this is the way that it’s supposed to happen.” But there’s actually something more important. If you are a student of boring behavioral economics like I am, there’s something called the demonstration effect, which says that you are more likely to spend and do things according to what you think your peers and friends do. So as long as Betty and Bob are sending their kid off to college, you’re more likely to reinforce to your child that they need to go off to college too. So people are just kind of blindly following along right now. When you raise this point about should you really go to college, people want to argue with you and think that you have nine heads, that that’s something that you shouldn’t say. But the reality is that not everybody needs to go into student loan debt. And even more importantly, there are less expensive ways to go to school: at community college, do two years first at your local community college… But I think everyone knows somebody who picked their four-year school by who had the best parties, and then how far they could get away from home. And that’s not a reason to go into student loan debt.

On-screen text: Success isn’t making money to pay off student loans.

Steve Rhode: If you’re going to be truly successful in life, I hate to get all touchy-feely, but you know you really do have to live your passion. You have to do something that you’re very motivated about. And not everybody is going to be a 9-to-5 cubicle person and want to work an office job. I have just talked to so many people who work at jobs they hate because they have to make money to pay the student loans. They say to me, “You know, Steve, inside I’m just secretly dying.” And so, you don’t necessarily have to do what everybody does.

On-screen text: What you need to consider…

Steve Rhode: The reality is that student loan debt is an emotional thing that I don’t think that most people know three-quarters of people with student loan debt never graduated, and I don’t think they understand how much this is going to cost them in the future. I think that most people are just making an emotional decision that, “School is good, so I must go to school.” The reality is, though, that not everybody should go to school. That college is not necessarily for everybody. That you shouldn’t rush to go to school if you don’t know that this is going to be an investment that’s going to pay off for you in the future.

That gets us back to a key point: What your son thinks he wants. It sounds like he’s unsure. I agree with you on this, Leslie: It’s not financially wise to take out big loans for a four-year school far from home if your son isn’t sure that’s what he wants. Before doing anything, all three of you need to sit down and discuss the options I’ve laid out here.

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About the Author

Howard Dvorkin, CPA

Howard Dvorkin, CPA

I’m a certified public accountant who has authored two books on getting out of debt, Credit Hell and Power Up, and I am one of the personal finance experts for Debt.com. I have focused my professional endeavors in the consumer finance, technology, media and real estate industries creating not only Debt.com, but also Financial Apps and Start Fresh Today, among others. My personal finance advice has been included in countless articles, and has appeared in the New York Times, the Washington Post, Forbes and Entrepreneur as well as virtually every national and local newspaper in the country. Everyone should have a reason for living that’s bigger than themselves, and besides my family, mine is this: Teaching Americans how to live happily within their means. To me, money is not the root of all evil. Poor money management is. Money cannot buy happiness, but going into debt always buys misery. That’s why I launched Debt.com. I’m glad you’re here.

Published by Debt.com, LLC