College: Is It Worth It?

This is the first of an exclusive daily series that takes a look at the college experience, from how to choose what school and course of study is right for you to finding innovative ways to pay the bills.

Two-hundred thousand dollars.

That's what four years of college could wind up costing entering students at a top-tier liberal arts school this fall.

Is it worth it?

More specifically: do the ends justify the combination of time, effort, money and sacrifices necessary to earn a college degree?

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Risk versus reward is a basic mantra preached by almost every investment adviser, and the same logic applies when deciding whether to choose a backpack and books over a workplace ID.

Simply put, a college education does not come cheap.

In 2002-2003, the average annual cost (tuition, room and board) at a typical four-year public university was $9,828, while a year at a mid-range private institution averaged more than twice as much, $23,940, according to Department of Education statistics.

That should put the average cost of a bachelor's degree at between $40,000 and $100,000. But government statistics don't come close to telling the real story.

First, tuition — the basic cost of attending classes — at a public university is cheapest for in-state students. Attend an out-of-state public institution and the tuition could triple. Get accepted at a top-tier liberal arts college and the annual cost of tuition and fees could run more than $42,000.

Now, throw in books (it's not unusual for a 100-page paperback text to cost $50 or more), fees for lab and research access, campus activities and events, academic copying and printing, library use and parking... and, well, you get the picture.

But that's not all... there's also the cost of kegs, cars and clothes.

Transportation — the cost of a car, gas, insurance, and in some cases, four round-trip airfares a year — can run more than $5,000 a year.

Then there's the price of off-campus entertainment and activities (after all, you don't want to sit in your dorm all the time), and clothing, computers, and other electronic necessities such as an iPod — even a plasma TV.

Now, multiply everything by four years, and — not even figuring for inflation, or arbitrary increases in tuition and fees (research shows tuition increasing at a rate of about 10 percent annually) — you now have a bill that's more than able to bring any student or parent to their knees.

Even writing a check to pay for it all can be costly if you take out loans. The College Board, an association of colleges and universities, reports that student who borrow to pay for college graduate with an average $20,000 of debt. You could end up feeling this bill for up to 10 years after you graduate.

Had enough?

Well, there's some good news. First, those well-cited government statistics about the average cost of tuition are about as accurate as a hotel's posted prices. It's the "rack rate," and most colleges offer an abundance of financial aid that at least can knock down the cost of tuition.

Still, tens of thousands of dollars (at minimum) is a big financial investment for anything, including an education.

So what are the potential rewards?

Here's where government statistics might make you smile.

In 2005, the U.S. Census Bureau reported that college graduates earned about $51,000 a year. Compare that to a typical wage earner without a high school diploma earning an average $18,734 a year, and workers with a high school diplomas earning $27,915, and it doesn't take rocket science to see that a college degree can at least double your money-making potential.

"The more you learn, the more you earn — and the less likely you are to be unemployed," according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. "Earnings increase and unemployment decreases with additional years of education. But completing a program is worth more than attending college without earning a degree."

The payoff in personal enrichment might be harder to quantify, but it's just as important.

"What college hopefully will do for [my daughter] Sasha and for all my kids would be to expose them to things that they hadn’t thought of, so that they grow as people, they become more rounded, more open, more tolerant," said Steve Ozahowski, whose daughter Sasha is going to Roger Williams University in Rhode Island.

"The knowledge is important, but I don’t think it’s as important as the overall experience and ... the four-year commitment," Ozahowski said.

For tips and tools on preparing financially for college, click here for's College Planning Page.

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