The problem with pros and cons lists

For seniors who will soon be making decisions about where to attend college next fall, don’t expect a pros and cons list alone to make the decision clear.

There are two big problems with using these lists to make a big decision.

1. Humans don’t make big decisions entirely rationally (and in some cases, our decisions aren’t rational at all). It’s hard to be honest about emotions that are swaying you one way or another.

2. Pros and cons lists don’t include relative the value or likelihood of each pro or con.

For families whot are drawn to comparative lists, spreadsheets, or other data to make the decision on where to attend college, you might try adding some rigor to it and considering, for each element, the perceived value (or cost) and the likelihood it will occur.

Let’s say you’re considering going to a college far away from home. To keep the example simple, I’ll use just one pro and one con.

Meet new people

Increased cost means I might need to take out loans for years 3 and 4.

How can you make a decision based on those two lists? You have one pro and one con right in front of you. But just seeing them isn’t enough.

Let’s start with the con. If you had to assign a probability of running out of money, would what it be? Are you sure that you’ll need to take out loans? Pretty sure? Or just worried it could happen?

You might remind yourself that you could take part-time jobs, live frugally, and apply for financial aid to the point that there’s just a 30% chance of this outcome actually happening.

Now, if it did happen, what would the cost be? You can use the real cost if you can calculate it. But you can also use the figurative cost. How painful would it be? Not just to take on loans that need to be paid back, but also to tell your family that you’ve run out of money, to drive your choice of job after college in part by how much money you’ll need to cover your loan payments, and to start your life as an adult already in debt. If you’re not sure, just pick a number as you can always adjust it later. Let’s say -50,000.

If you multiply that cost by the chance of it happening, (-50,000 x .30), you get a true cost of -15,000.

Now let’s look at the pro.

What are the chances that you’ll meet new people? Let’s say you decide they’re high—90%. Now, how much would that outcome be worth to you? Pick the number based on how the pleasure of meeting new people would compare to the pain of going into debt.

Let’s say you decide that meeting new people would be really great and you assign it a value of 30,000. You’re saying that the pain of going into debt (-50,000) would actually be greater than the pleasure of meeting new people. Now multiply your cost (30,000) by the likelihood it will happen (90%), or .90 and you get 27,000.

As long as you get a positive number, it means your pros outweigh your cons. And best of all, you’ve stripped out emotion and gut instinct to arrive at the best statistical decision based on value/cost x likelihood it will occur.

You can do this with each element, positive or negative, of a potential college. A school has study abroad options you’re excited about? Great. What are the chances that you’ll actually apply for and participate in one of those programs? How much is that opportunity worth to you? Multiply the two and you’ll have an actual measure of that benefit to compare with your others.

I’m not sure that any one list, formula, or spreadsheet alone should drive your college decision. But you probably want to rely on more than just gut instinct, too. If you’re comparing the perceived pros and cons of a potential college, make sure you assign both a likelihood and a value/cost to each. You can’t really know which side has more weight until you’ve assigned the appropriate value to each piece.

And for counselors, here’s some past advice on how to help your students make the best college decisions for them.