The Crushing ROI for Higher Ed: Can a MilSpouse Win The Game of LIFE?
About the Author

Michelle Aikman is a military spouse and career management expert.

Every Friday, my family either watches a movie or plays board games. My kids love playing The Game of LIFE because they think it’s hilarious to go to college, make a salary, and have kids at age nine and eleven. If you’re familiar with the game, you know each player has to make a choice at some point in the game: start working or go to college.  

If you start working right away, you collect money right away. If you go to college, you not only have to pay tuition, but wait to finish college before you start collecting money. The benefit is, by going to college, you make more money when you actually start collecting.   

I love this game because it is helping my kids think about real-life decisions with long-term benefits and consequences. It helps them understand opportunity costs.   

After recently playing the game, I wondered what The Game of LIFE: Military Spouse Edition would look like …  

It would still include the choice to go to college or not, but I am not sure participants would get to collect money as a salary. If they did, most of the time, it wouldn’t last but a turn or two because they would have to quit their job due to a PCS move.   

I’m not sure participants would pick a single profession, either. Even if they did pick one profession, they might have to move to a place where they are unable to work in their chosen career path, so they would either have to pick a new one or settle for being unemployed.   

I didn’t have to think about it too long before I realized this would be one complicated game! My kids would lose interest after they realized there wasn’t much in the game they could control in order to win. I also think they would have a difficult time seeing the benefit of going to college in this version, which is something that has weighed on me for a long time …  

Was my college education worth it? 

I invested a great deal of time, energy, and money into my education with the intention of getting a return on my investment, also known as ROI. In the process, I fell in love with my chosen profession, so working within that profession also became important.  

Now, let’s look at this investment strictly from a financial standpoint and run some quick numbers, assuming you’re a military spouse graduating from college now with a degree in Chemical Engineering and a graduate degree in Engineering Management …  

According to the National Center for Education Statistics for the 2014–15 academic year, the average annual current prices for undergraduate tuition, fees, and room and board were estimated to be $16,188 at public institutions; $41,970 at private, nonprofit institutions; and $23,372 at private for-profit institutions.  

Hypothetically, you have a bachelor’s and master’s degree from public institutions:

            $16,188 x four years = $64,752 for your undergraduate program

            $15,000 x one year = $15,000 for your graduate program 

            = $80,000 as your total financial investment  

This is very close to what I actually spent on my education.  

Your hypothetical schools’ most recent annual report shows almost all graduates were employed or doing what they desired, and in your career field, commanded an average salary of $80,359.  

Let’s assume an annual pay increase of 3 percent (which probably is low for the profession) with no inflation, and extend it for 20 years (the typical time it takes for service members to retire from the military). Aa typical person with your education should be making ~$145,000 a year. In total, this amounts to ~$2.2 million earned over the course of those 20 years. This total amount also aligns with what the Bureau of Labor Statistics lists as the mean annual wage for this profession.   

So, for an investment of $80,000, it is reasonable to expect a financial return on that investment over 20 years to be ~2,650% or ... 

$2.1 million. 

After talking with my college friends, this ROI is feasible for most people. But for me, a military spouse who graduated with high honors from one of the most highly regarded engineering schools in the nation …this ROI will take much longer than 20 years. Between moving, living in locations with limited or no job opportunities, and a nonstandard career trajectory, maintaining continuous employment with pay increases is challenging.   

How Do I Rank at the Game of LIFE? 

Just like many military spouses with career ambitions, I have adapted. I have taken the uncertain, high-risk, high-intensity path of entrepreneurship, so the possibility exists, but there also is the possibility of complete failure. For military spouses who continue to pursue their chosen profession and for those who deviate, the likelihood most of them will make enough to offset their ROI in the two decades that overlap a spouse’s military service career is highly unlikely.  

The negative impact on earning potential for military spouses over the long-term is cumulative. As service members leave the military, their spouses earn less income to cushion the transition. Financial pressures are an additional stress, along with the myriad other changes a military family experiences with they leave military life behind.     

  • Will I make enough to offset my lost ROI? We’ll all have to wait to see!  
  • Do I regret pursuing my education? Absolutely not. My personal experience fuels my interest to share the stories of military spouses and bring to light the losses we endure by supporting our spouses who are serving this nation.   
  • Do I recommend other military spouses go to college? Absolutely. But I recommend doing so with eyes wide open. Know your opportunity costs and fight to get the support and the ROI you deserve. Our nation will have a stronger military when our military spouses are supported in their chosen professions.  

If you aren’t a military spouse, consider playing the figurative Game of LIFE: Military Spouse Edition and figure out how you can alleviate some of the challenges military spouses face when pursuing their chosen professions.  

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