How Choosing a College Education is Like Buying a Car

The two biggest purchases you'll ever make are a house and a car, or at least that's what realtors and car salespeople will tell you. But there is one purchase that could be much more expensive than either of those: your college education.

The average price for four years of college (including room, board and other expenses) is over $93,000 at a public school and over $185,000 at a private school. You may never own a car that expensive and that may be more than your first house.

What's your biggest purchase now? Your choice of education and the subsequent debt will influence your buying power for the rest of your life. Time to make the right pick and treat it as a major financial transaction.

Do Your Research

In many ways, buying a college education is like buying a car. You need an automobile to get around and you need a degree to take your career where it needs to go.

But you would never simply walk onto a car lot and listen to whatever the salesman tells you and then accept whatever price they give you! You need to do your research ahead of time to know for sure what it is you're looking for, what the fair market value is, and what price you are willing to pay: for both a car or an education.

The Hard Sell

Colleges spend lots of time and effort recruiting you. They want to get you on campus and they want you to stay there for four years or longer. 

The car business is the same way. With commercials, slogans, billboards or inflatable gorillas, they need to pull your attention away from the competition. Once they have you out of your car, they want you in theirs. When you come back from the test drive, all excited about your experience, they want to close the deal.

Keep a clear mind about the courtship process. Know that you have many options, but each school believes that they are your only and best choice.

Your Purchasing Timeline

If you're on a traditional schedule, you'll be starting college a few months after you graduate from high school. Your time frame is quite clear. Throughout high school you should have a measured plan to select and apply for the right college. Your counselors, teachers and parents will be with you to keep you on track.

Starting early gives you time to research all your options thoroughly to prevent you from making a last minute impulse buy.

Different Products for Different Needs

Before you buy a car you would analyze your needs and desires. How many passengers and what cargo will you carry? Do you need four-wheel drive? How much weight will you haul and tow? What can you afford to pay?

Analyze your college options in the same way. Think about what goals you want to achieve in life. Will this college help you achieve those goals? Do you need a big-name school or will the same degree from any school open the same doors? Should you start your education at an affordable junior college? Will studying online allow you to work, live at home and learn at your own pace?

Debt, Of Course

Few people pay cash for a car. Few students exit college without debt. When buying a car, the question usually is not: “How much will the car cost?” Rather, you'll be asked: “How much can you afford to pay per month?”

Similarly, you should make a long-term repayment plan and consider what you'll be paying per month for your years in school. Will it be worth it to you? Will you be enslaved forever by a hefty loan payment?

College loans are designed to be more manageable than car loans. The terms are much longer in order to reduce monthly payments. Income-Driven Repayment Plans give you insurance against low post-graduation paychecks. If your education is not making you rich yet, your loan payment won't make you poor.

But They Can't Repossess Your Brain

Lenders can take back your car if you don't pay for it. But they can't take back the education. This is one of the reasons it is so difficult to discharge student loans. Once you sign up, you have to repay.

Your college education is a major purchase. Crunch the financial numbers. Kick the tires. Armor yourself against high-pressure sales. 

In the end you’ll be able to get behind the wheels and enjoy the ride with confidence in your decision.