An important concept in personal finance is the distinction between investment returns and investor returns.

The former represents the potential obtainable if an investor stuck with an investment, and the latter is the return investors actually take to the bank, typically far less than potential returns because of investors’ own erratic behavior during the period of the investment.

Perhaps more than any other area in contemporary American life, the investment in higher education, like stock investing, exposes a gaping chasm between theoretical and actual returns and as such obligates the scrutiny of serious financial advisors.

At a price tag approaching an average of $200,000 for four years of private college tuition, room and board and associated expenses, a college education is a terrible thing to waste, to paraphrase the old UNCF fundraising slogan.

I recall an encounter some years ago with a typical new grad with perhaps slightly above-average performance at a slightly above-average school.

I asked him what his favorite course was in college. He replied: “Anthropology of the Caveman.”

Other than finding the class “cool” and “really interesting,” the young man could not articulate how what he learned in the class could enhance his career prospects, contribute to his budding philosophy of life, or frankly, what he actually learned in the class which he had only recently taken. The young man has since gone on to a variety of jobs with minimal pay and minimal prospects.

At a conference last year I was speaking with a high-profile advisor prominent on the lecture circuit who hoped that his daughter, then a high school senior, would not choose the most expensive of three colleges then under consideration. But why should this father, though wealthier than most, struggle to pay so much money for a not particularly distinguished school so junior can have just the right experience, I asked.

I am not against higher education. But the “high” kids get at college is not always of the educational variety.

College, once the province of academic achievers (together with the low-achieving kids of rich parents), has become a middle-class expectation. Parents are possibly more anxious than their children to get them “college,” often forgetting about the education part.

But this expectation is a mere cultural phenomenon which ignores the reality that middle-class parents and their children are literally endangering their financial futures through second mortgages, student loans and the like to pay for products whose costs continue to rise even as their quality rapidly diminishes.

The tougher emerging economy will be cruelly unforgiving of those who brought back poor investor returns in the area of education and professional training when they had their chance to capture most of the available return on investment.

Financial advisors can play a vital role helping clients and society at large by dispassionately laying out options in a strictly utilitarian fashion, noting costs and benefits. And by asking “how does this advance your long-term objectives?” and “how much is it worth to you?” of parents or students who demand recreational centers with climbing walls and lazy rivers.

Our society would be a better place as well if parents imparted a meaningful life philosophy to their children before they got to college.