For most students and their parents, a college education will cost somewhere between $90,000 and $400,000, depending on a number of factors. Along with buying a home, or paying for catastrophic medical expenses, a college education is going to be one of the most expensive purchases students and their parents make during their lifetimes.

The sheer size of the investment, which is growing larger each year, has caused many to question the financial wisdom of a college education. As they should. Taking the cost of a college education for granted is the worst thing we can do. If nothing else, such questions force student, parents, and universities to make sure value is being delivered and obtained.

Recently, much has been written about whether ROI (Return On Investment) for a college education is net positive. The data about net earnings and employment comparing those with a bachelors degree versus a high school diploma indicates that the college graduates still fare much better over their lifetimes. One study just concluded actually suggests the income disparity between the two groups is getting larger, not shrinking.

That's comforting if you've already earned a college degree. But it is small consolation to parents who must still write checks to pay for tuition, plus a host of other costs. For them, I have three words: PROTECT YOUR INVESTMENT.

So how do you protect this precious investment? First, watch it closely. When all your eggs are in one basket (i.e., one college), you'd do well to follow Andrew Carnegie's advice. Think of it this way: you have just spent $200,000 on a single stock, say Apple or GE; wouldn't you then watch that stock very closely? Well the same advice applies to your college investment. Both students and parents need to be vigilant and make sure they are protecting their investment. Students need to make sure they are performing at a high level, not simply treading water or flunking out and not telling Mom and Dad about it. Parents need to be ready to intercede when warranted when a college is not fulfilling its promises. And don't be intimidated by disingenuous terms like "helicopter parent" or "hovercraft mom."

Second, insure your investment – at least the tuition part. Students get sick or other things happen. And somehow, it always seems to happen after the course drop dates have passed. Once passed, I've seen colleges get pretty hard nosed about refunds, and if you get one, it certainly won't be a full one.

Third, you need to protect your investment by making sure that your child is realizing the full benefit of a college education. Maximizing your college education means making sure you've selected a college program that will light a fire under your son or daughter... that they will be challenged and, at the very least, be developed in terms of the nine elements of learning described in an earlier column (See Robert's Rule #1). When it comes to colleges, you want to select, as the higher education expert Loren Pope used to say, "colleges that change lives."

Fourth, smart college shoppers make certain their son or daughter is ready to perform brilliantly in the classroom. One thing popped out when I began gathering financial data about what parents and students spend on college. Excepting those paying for private prep schools, most don't spend nearly enough getting ready for college compared to what they will spend during college, or sometimes even after college on debt service. Smart college shoppers spend more before starting college in order to spend less later. A good budget can help you determine if you are spending an appropriate amount before ever enrolling.

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Robert Ronstadt, PhD, is a former vice president of Boston University. He advises parents and students about finding, selecting, and paying for college. Contact him at 603-998-4364 or robertronstadt@gmail.com to learn more about how he can help you save money, limit college loans, and reduce stress.

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