This is the final installment in a 3-part series on the rising cost of college and what you can do about it.

It’s early January and parents along with high school seniors are getting their first introduction to the joys and merriment of the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid). Do we have our PIN yet? Does Jason need his own PIN? Do I have to declare my 401k as an asset? Can I fill it out if I don’t have my 2013 taxes done? Is it even worth our time to fill this thing out if we don’t think we’ll qualify for aid? 

Whoa, slow down a bit. I’m going to direct you to a great resource in the person of Lynn O’Shaugnessy, a best-selling author and blogger for CBS MoneyWatch. (For comparison’s sake I am an author and write this blog.) Read her recent post “8 Financial Aid Mistakes to Avoid”. And, by the way, the answers to the question above are: I don’t know; yes; no; surprisingly yes; and absolutely yes.

Everyone is talking about the rising cost of college and all the topics surrounding it such as student loan debt, the impact of the fiscal crisis on federal aid, the ROI of a bachelors degree, and state funding of public institutions, to name a few. That’s good. As a nation we’ve avoided having a serious and inclusive dialogue about this issue. As parents we’ve whined, we’ve complained, we’ve gone into mild shock at times, but the majority of American households are not thinking and communicating at the depth that is necessary to counter a problem that many see as out of control and beyond their abilities to tame. What can you do, suburban father of a 17 year-old girl who wants to be a nurse, to get colleges to stop building luxurious workout facilities and haute cuisine dining halls because you just don’t need all that?

Let me suggest two things that everyone can do:

1) Stop treating this decision as if you’re buying a pair of shoes. Sure, the similarities exist: you go shopping to see what’s available or browse online, you try on a few pairs, someone says, “Wow, those are really YOU!” and you walk up to the cash register. If you really like them, you stuff the disgusting old sneakers you wore into the store in the new shoe box and then you go home and do other things. Done. Check it off the list.

At the risk of offending half my audience, that’s how a very large percentage of our kids go through the process. They visit a couple schools, surf the internet for pics of cool kids at cool schools, double-check to see if their intended major is offered, enjoy the Social Media barrage that awaits them from the marketing departments of every college in America, and pick what they “heard was a pretty good school”. That’s bad, and it’s no way to spend $100k+.

You don’t need to approach this as if you’re Hamlet, Hamletwallowing in a quagmire of self-reflection and self-doubt, but would it hurt you to stretch the boundaries a bit and admit you’ve never purchased anything before where the price is hidden until the seller has a copy of your tax returns? (Repeat for emphasis: copy of your tax returns.) “Easy for him to say. He just wants us to hire him.” You’re right, I do, and it’s because I approach this process with a level of seriousness, professionalism, rigor but also joy and wonder at the power of a single choice to forever change one’s life. I’m not talking about ruining your life because of a snap decision (you probably won’t)…I’m talking about taking it from good to great (thanks again, Jim Collins) and then to whatever lies beyond great. (Really-great, super-great, flippin’-great…?)

Why not commit to the effort it takes to do that, to put yourself in that position? 

And the second thing you can do to combat skyrocketing costs and doom-and-gloom media stories is this:

2) Stuff every little bit of value you can into that degree. Don’t settle for anything less than an absolute and complete value-filled diploma. And you won’t get that by waiting for them to hand it to you as you walk across a stage – you get that by becoming a maniacal, value-obsessed, educational fire-starter from the moment your feet hit the quad during orientation week until the last paper is written.

  • Do more than is expected.
  • Show up everyday for office hours and hound your professors for more examples and better explanations.
  • Look ’em in the eye and tell ’em, “That’s your syllabus — this is mine! ARRR!”
  • Drop in to the career center in your first week and ask to meet with someone who can help you land a choice job in four years.
  • Schedule lunch with the Dean and give her the results of a much needed customer satisfaction survey you took it upon yourself to design and conduct.
  • Start a club that does amazing things.

Value in college is all about two things: growth and maturity. When it’s all said and done, who are you? Who have you become? Are you even recognizable to your high school buddies who went to “a pretty good school”?

The fire-starter reference above is part of my mission to have us adopt this as a national motto: “Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.” It’s what I write inside every copy of my book that I sell or give away because it’s absolutely true.

So with all apologies to Shakespeare: “To thine own value be true…”