State Treasurer Don Stenberg is sponsoring the 11th annual "Why I Want to Go to College" essay contest, with a chance to win a $3,500 contribution to a Nebraska college saving plan, a one-night stay in an Omaha hotel and tickets to an Omaha Storm Chasers baseball game.
But win or lose, the real prize in the contest is a chance for seventh and eight-grade students to truly think about their future and long-term goals.
That includes, perhaps, the question of whether college is even necessary, and what type of college it should be to qualify for their chosen occupation.
From a purely monetary perspective, college usually does pay off, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, which calculates that a worker with a bachelor degree can expect to earn $2.4 million over 40 years. That's about $1.1 million more than someone with just high school diploma will earn, and nearly $1.5 million more than a high school drop out will earn.
Of course, one would have to compare the price of the college training to the potential earnings to determine the real payoff -- someone in computers and math or management can expect to earn $3.7 million over the course of a lifetime, while someone in the service industry can expect as little as $1.4 million, even with a degree.
On the other side of the coin, when the economy turned bad, the unemployment rate for someone with less than a high school diploma was 14.6 percent in 2009, while only 2.3 percent of those with professional degrees were jobless.
There's a lot to consider beyond financial math, of course; no high-paying job is worth the money if it makes you miserable, and few of us are likely to reach our potential doing something we really don't enjoy.
But while money can't buy happiness, it does come in handy when it's time to pay the rent and utilities and buy groceries.
Writers of previous entries have shown valuable insight, Stenberg said.
"Past winners have displayed a depth of understanding of the value of higher education," Stenberg said. "Their essays have been honest and genuine and have focused on their families, their career goals and their desire to serve their communities."
To start your student thinking, why not encourage him or her to submit an essay to the state treasurer's contest by April 5?
It must be no longer than 750 words, it must be the student's original work, must be typed, double-spaced on 8 1/2 x 11-inch paper and must be accompanied with a required cover sheet, available by clicking on the College Savings Plan link at www.treasurer.org.
Essays then must be sent to the Omaha Storm Chasers, Atten. Andrea Stava, 12356 Ballpark Way, Papillion, NE 68046, postmarked by April 5, 2013.
While it's certainly better to start saving for college when students are very small, starting even as late as junior high can create significant tax incentives for parents, Stenberg said.