Today’s post is written by a fellow fee-only advisor, Richard Freight, CFP®, EA, of IAM Financial, who is a father of two who will hopefully be college-bound. 

tyler and isabella

Dear Tyler & Isabella,

These are some of the things I want you to consider when choosing what and where to study in college…..

When the time comes for my son Tyler, and my daughter Isabella, to go to college, I image us having this wise and thoughtful conversation around the pros and cons of this and that college. I’ll ask them what they want to do with their lives and we’ll plot a course that will surely lead them to a long and happy life.

Then I think about the cost of college and I think – ah hell, I am a Spartan through and through and I want them to go to Michigan State University because 1. it’s awesome, and 2. they get half off tuition if my wife continues to work there. And by “they” I mean, “I” get half off tuition. Because we all know who’s really paying for college. They can study whatever they want, as long as it’s at Michigan State University.

My guess is many parents endure the same mental wrestling when it comes to helping their kids choose a college. In fact, years ago, my brother asked me to talk to his daughter about college. He said she was planning on moving away to Chicago and studying photography at Columbia College. That’s right, that Columbia, where tuition at that time cost $40,000 per year. He worried she was make a bad decision that would haunt her financially for the rest of her life. Not knowing much about college planning I did what any good financial advisor does, I asked some colleagues their thoughts and did a little number crunching.

The Numbers: college cost projector

Debt says with no aid the net price to attend Columbia College in Chicago is $41,850.’s College Cost Projector Calculator says after 7% inflation over 4 years, the total cost to attend would be $185,811.61. See graphic to the right.


Per the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) the mean annual wage of a photographer is $42,640 per year in 2015.


The average person’s budget spends 80 plus percent of their income on what the BLS calls major composite units. (See BLS graphic to the right.) Of course, the personal insurance and pension column must be low because any family member of mine is going to start saving 10% from the get go so that they are independently wealthy by the time they turn 45. This leaves less than 20% of their income to spend on “the rest” of your expenses including college debt and entertainment like travel. We all know millennials love to travel so let’s guesstimate that it’ll be 10% because having just finished college, nobody is going to put ALL their hard earned cash towards debt payments. Speaking of debt payments.

Debt Payment

With a $42,640 average photographers income you’d have $4,264 to put towards college debt and less than that towards discretionary spending like travel and entertainment.

Major Assumption

Let’s say you didn’t have to finance all your college debt. With help from Mom and Dad, you paid almost 50% of your loans off and only owe $100,000. You want this paid off before you turn 40, or in 15 years.

Debt Payoffloan calc

Per Finaid Loan Calculator, paying off $100,000 at 6.8% interest over 15 years will cost you $887.68 per month. That’s $10,652 per year. $10,652 is 25% of your earnings IF you got a job making the average as a photographer. You would have to make $106,520 a year, more than double the average wage to only pay 10% on student loans.

Number Crunching Conclusion

It doesn’t make sense or cents to study photography at Columbia College. In fact, that was the very conclusion of Stacy Berg Dale and Alan B. Krueger’s in their National Bureau of Economic Research Working Paper No. 7322. The paper, Estimating the Payoff to Attending a More Selective College: An Application of Selection on Observables and Unobservable, asks if the earnings return from a diploma with the name of an elite institution stamped on it justify the higher expense, or is the reputation of the college aristocracy vastly overblown, at least when it comes to subsequent income? A great writeup of the paper in NBER’s December 1999 Digest says “students who attended more selective colleges do not earn more than other students who were accepted and rejected by comparable schools but attended less selective colleges.”

Colleagues’ Conclusion

So what were the conclusions of my fellow colleagues I asked? Most of the responses were that it would cost a lot and she may or may not get a decent job in the photography field. Many said she could study photography at any time in her life, but going to Columbia would result in too much debt, etc.

The most memorable response I heard was from a career changer financial advisor who studied film at Columbia. She said while working on a set one day they ordered pizza. The guy delivering the pizza asked if this was film 350, or whatever class she was attending? She replied “Yes, it is.” He said, “yep, I loved that class too.” He had graduated from Columbia with the same degree she was pursuing.

That interaction changed this advisor’s thinking. She wondered why she was spending so much money on college at a great university when the pizza guy, who already had the degree, couldn’t get a job in the field.

What am I going to tell Tyler and Isabella when it’s their turn to choose a college? Study whatever you want, just don’t go into too much debt doing it. Too much debt kills your cash flow and adds undue stress to your life. It’s not fancy campuses and great facilities that craft your education. It’s the pursuit of something that brings you joy and purpose that gives you the most satisfaction.

About the Author

Rich Feight, CFP®, EA is a fee-only Certified Financial Planner® and Professional NAPFA-Registered Financial Advisor at IAM Financial in East Lansing and Grand Rapids Michigan with 20 years of experience helping self-employed business owners and professionals organize their finances so they can retire on time. He blogs at