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Return on investment

By Dr. Carl E. Zylstra

In a day when college tuition costs keep rising and in which the average debt load of graduates makes the national news, it’s not surprising that prospective students (and their parents) ask me whether I really believe that college remains a good investment.

Dr. Carl E. Zylstra

Dr. Carl E. Zylstra

I’m not one to minimize the investment that is necessary to attend college. First of all, the direct costs of four years of tuition and fees are significant. In addition, there are what economists call “opportunity costs,” that is, the amount one could have earned had he or she been in the work force for four years instead of going to college. Add those two costs together and you have one of the largest investments the average person will make in a lifetime. So the question remains: is this investment really worth it?

I could answer that question in a couple of ways. One is the straightforward economic observation that the “average” college graduate will earn $1.2 million more during his or her lifetime than if he or she hadn’t received the degree. Or the fact that sixty percent of all new jobs being created require at minimum a four-year college degree. On the surface, then, a college education seems like a decent investment, despite the high upfront cost.

But I think there is a better way of measuring what financial advisors call a “return on investment.” When it comes to investing in a Christian college education, the return on the investment really ought to be measured in less tangible, but no less real, ways.

The first return on investment comes from the fact that a successful college educational experience offers a wider range of opportunities for serving Christ’s kingdom. No one needs a college degree in order to serve faithfully in the Lord’s work, but the variety of service opportunities expands exponentially as educational experience grows. That return on investment is almost impossible to measure before one begins college, but it truly does last a lifetime.

If students’ educational experience has been successful, they should be better equipped for the service that Christ has laid out for them. God has blessed most of us with gifts for far more possibilities of service than we will ever be able to realize, placing on each of us the responsibility to exercise the “highest and best” use of the gifts God has given us. That also means developing those gifts to the highest and best degree possible, something that Christ-centered higher education is designed to provide.

The third return on investment is more personal for each of us. It involves increasing our knowledge and understanding of both ourselves and the world God has made. God has provided what the Belgic Confession calls the “book” of creation to reveal his glory to us. What we need to do is invest in the education necessary to read that book more fully so that we can honor him more fully as well. After all, isn’t that the purpose for which God created us in the first place? If so, then isn’t it also worth the price necessary to invest in an education that will enable us to praise God more completely as we understand his world in all its intricacies more fully.

Still, what strikes me as the most meaningful return on our investment in education is what it does to us as persons. If we truly have experienced effective, biblically-based education, then we also should have become more complete and fulfilled bearers of the image of God. In other words, a proper faith-infused education helps us become what God created us to be in the first place. And that sort of result makes almost any investment worth the price.

To be sure, colleges need to ensure that their own costs are justified and that prospective students of all income levels have access to the educational opportunity they provide. But the bottom line remains: whatever investment we make in our education will ultimately be an investment in ourselves, in becoming who our Father made us to be and our Savior redeemed us to become. That sort of yield may not necessarily show up on an investment advisor’s chart, but in the divine scheme of things, it can result in an impressive return on our investment.