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Opportunity cost and the college decision

By Hannah Kovscek
web posted October 7, 2013

"So what colleges are you interested in?" my great-aunt asked me quizzically. I looked up at her, wide-eyed, not entirely sure how to respond. College? How am I supposed to know what college I'd like to attend at this point in my life? "I…I don't know," my voice quivered a little in response.

Yes, my great-aunt really did want to know what colleges I was interested in when I was young enough to still be playing Barbie's, dress-up, and My Little Pony. Unlike my cousin who just finished 5th grade—and who has already considered Notre Dame and Harvard as potential future colleges—college was the last thing on my mind when I was in elementary school. The frequency I'm asked The Question has greatly increased, however, since my elementary school days—and as college application deadlines loom, I'm continually weighing the opportunity costs involved in my decision.

Why go to college in the first place? College, after all, would consume four years of my life—even more if I'd continue studying for my master's degree. Besides that, thousands of dollars would be poured into tuition, textbook fees, and room and board. Would the opportunity cost of going to college be too high in the broader sense, or not? Perhaps in the future I'd choose to be a stay-at-home mom. Are four to six years and thousands of dollars worth only working five years in my desired field, if that? (A hypothetical situation which is not-quite-so-hypothetical for my mother, who graduated and began working as an occupational therapist in 1993, then quit her job when she had her first child—me—in '96.)

The alternatives to college, however, aren't excessively appealing. Since I don't plan to start a family for a number of years, the logical next step after high school, sans college, wouldn't include marriage and children. I could continue living at home…but doing what? I would be a free rider in my parents' house, living off of my dad's wages like I was still a fully dependent child. But I wouldn't want that life. Thus, another alternative would be to start out living at home, since I would still be under legal age for a little while after I graduate in the spring. From there, I'd job search at local places like Walmart, McDonalds, or another place of that sort. I wouldn't have many options since I live in a small town and would only have a high school diploma, after all.  Assuming I'd secure myself one of these low-income jobs, I would start saving little by little for my own single-bedroom place to rent (maybe I could make it a little ironic—in regards to the previous free riding possibility—and rent an apartment from my dad).  These alternatives, however, are not the best alternatives.

I want to learn. I want to gain new experiences. I want to become independent. I want to be prepared for whatever my future holds. Because of this, the opportunity cost of devoting years and thousands of dollars for college isn't that high for me in the economic sense. Compared to the other alternatives I gave, a college education is exceedingly more appealing and beneficial for me in the long run. Maybe I won't start a family until later on in life, in contrast to my mother's situation. Maybe I won't have children at all. Whatever the situation, however, I'll be the most prepared for the future by contributing to the economy's factors of production via the human capital that will be obtained from the knowledge I gain from a college education. ESR

This is Hannah Kovscek's first contribution to Enter Stage Right. © 2013 Hannah Kovscek





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