Squeezing Cash Out of Your Education

By: Matt Wilson, Vice President in Customer Experience, Farmingdale Millennial

I was paid to go to college. Considering our generation is crushed by student debt, I know that sounds far-fetched. This is because I viewed education as an investment. Today I’m a Vice President at a Fortune 500 Company overseeing hiring decisions where my best candidates need a practical education, not an expensive one. For this reason, anyone making a life-changing decision about purchasing education should evaluate it as an investment first.

The Return on Education (ROE) Formula

The cost of the education needs to make sense when compared to the benefits of securing a fulfilling, well-paying career.


Return on Bachelor’s Education = (First Year Entry Salary) / (Total Tuition Cost)

Return on Master’s Education = (Annualized Increase in Salary) / (Total Tuition Cost)

In this equation what matters is low-cost schooling and a high salary. The name and prestige of the school do not matter when viewed this way.


We’ve been groomed to consider those our only 2 options: Bachelor’s and Master’s Education. But guess what performs extremely well using the same formula?

Return on Trade School Education = (First Year Entry Salary) / (Total Tuition Cost)

Return on Certification = (Annualized Increase in Salary) / (Total Certificate Cost)

Education is valuable when you learn how to apply a skill. Not just repeat a concept on a test; demonstrate and apply it. That’s where Trade School and Certificate Programs perform so strongly. Bachelor’s Degrees that deliver proficiency in a tangible skill, like Computer Science, are in high demand. Think about it from the employer’s point of view. Do they want a good student or someone who already knows how to apply skills?

Consider this hypothetical comparison:

(A) Private University BA in Communications (B) In-State Public University BS in Computer Science
$50K Entry Salary / $250K 4-Year Tuition =

0.2 ROE

$85K Entry Salary / $90K 4-Year Tuition =

0.94 ROE

Intangible: Are you so passionate about this subject area, campus, and faculty that your enjoyment will outweigh the poor financial return?  


How did you decide how much to pay for your education? Was price even a factor? When student loans are so widely available with so few restrictions, the prices rise out of control. The same happened with loose mortgage lending in the real estate bubble in 2008. Just because you can get a jumbo loan doesn’t mean you should. Combine high compounded interest rates with a low ROE, and unfortunately, the student’s financial situation gets even worse, irreversibly limiting their ability to build wealth or financial freedom.

The pandemic opens a new perspective on tuition value. If pandemic-era virtual education costs similar, but loses its in-person advantages, then it seems like expensive universities will have trouble justifying their premium. The pandemic also impacts the salary side of ROE. Paying the same for education, but getting fewer job opportunities makes the ROE even worse.

A local example of a valuable, high ROE is SUNY Farmingdale State College. Based on SUNY Gradwages, an online database, Farmingdale college graduates are the #1 top earners among Long Island SUNY schools.1 Farmingdale ranks #4 among all SUNY schools.1 Based on this combination of high post-grad salaries and low-cost tuition, any New Yorker seeking a high ROE should include Farmingdale College among their options.

The State University of New York (SUNY) offers an insightful online tool at https://www.suny.edu/gradwages/. Its transparency is a great use of technology for the public good. You can review ranges of actually earned wages of graduates by campus, degree type & level, and more. This is a clear way to estimate the salary & benefit side of your ROE decision.

An Amazing Education Does Not Have to Cost a Lot

Today I’m a Vice President at a Fortune 500 company on Long Island. I’m constantly searching for the best talent for my team. I care about real experience, what they studied, how they’ve applied it, and if their passion matches their education. This has very little correlation with the price of their degree.

Entry-Level Applicant, I will interview Entry-Level Applicant I will pass
·        Bachelor’s degree

·        Intern or part-time work experience loosely related to my team’s mission

·        Experience shows the ability to work well as a team

·        Explanation of capstone or other projects loosely related to my team’s mission and our deliverables

·        Personal interests and passion match my team’s mission

·        Professional Certificates usable in my team’s mission

·        Mindset is ready to be entrepreneurial and high-performing

·        Bachelor’s degree in an overly generic subject area

·        Lack of intern or part-time work experience

·        Lack of capstone projects or application of their education

·        Lack of clear personal interest & passion in their subject area or my team’s mission

·        Mindset does not match team entrepreneurial and high-performer culture


Please notice that I am not looking for a university name or GPA. It’s possible to have a compelling application with a low education cost.

Education is Not Just the Degree

To me, education is not solely the degree. It’s also education from:

  • work experience,
  • specialized projects,
  • volunteer experience,
  • Professional Certifications, and
  • informal/personal passions.

Education is the culmination of what we’re curious about and learned, then how we apply it.

Professional Certificates: Real Skills, Short Timeframe, Low Cost

Professional Certificates are usually achieved faster and cost less than degree programs. Best of all, they’re designed to equip the student with a tangible skill.

A couple that I loved throughout my consulting and business career includes Six Sigma Black Belt, APICS Certified Supply Chain Professional, and Disney Institute Approach to Quality Service.

Certificate subjects range in all sorts of skills and ways to learn. The best ROE tend to be those with widely accepted Industry Certifications like Project Management Professional (PMP) or Certified Six Sigma Greenbelt (CSSGB).

There are also certificates demonstrating skill in certain software or technology, like Salesforce.

Maintaining a certification over time demonstrates continued involvement with a community of professionals and advancing your learning.

Technology and progress change so quickly that it isn’t realistic to purchase a large degree to keep up. Certificates are a good way to keep usable skills fresh in the ever-changing digital world.

So How Did I Get Paid for My Education?

How did I get paid to go to college? The first and most important decision I made was to choose a low-cost in-state school that had strong programs for my major. That assured a low total cost. On top of that I committed to Army ROTC to fund my tuition, then I spent evenings applying to over 50 merit scholarships that paid me in-excess. I exited college with cash for my first real estate investment and was debt-free when starting my professional career.

Every student will have a different approach to their ROE investment. What’s important is to keep the total cost low and the career opportunity high, then seek as much tuition assistance as possible.

Some New York students can drastically flip their ROE ratio by securing a “free” SUNY or CUNY education. New York residents & business taxpayers fund a program that covers SUNY/CUNY tuition for families making less than $125K per year. Unfortunately, that policy exacerbates tuition inflation, since there is no price pressure on over-priced schools. But if you qualify for it- use it! Since the program isn’t likely sustainable in our already over-taxed state, who knows how long that program will last. Keep in mind accepting the program limits you to working in New York afterward. Making the cost side of your ROE ratio $0 is a life-changing way to influence your Return. Get it while you can!

Learn Forever and Invest Wisely

I love learning. I constantly read and try new skills in my professional and personal life. It’s an important way to keep growing. Learning and education do matter- they matter a lot. However, if you or your family are going to purchase education then make sure you treat it as an investment. If more of us apply this critical evaluation to education, we’ll start probing the tuition bubble to finally burst and price-correct to a fairer value. Save your hard-earned capital for investments in real assets that build your wealth. Be wise with your cash and debt for a freer and more fulfilling future. Learn forever and invest wisely. Good luck in your quest for knowledge!



(1) LIBN, https://libn.com/2020/08/04/farmingdale-state-college-grads-are-top-earners-in-suny-system/ 8/4/2020