How high a price tag is a higher education worth?
In spring, the letters come in pairs. The offer of admission promises dreams come true; the financial aid letter serves as reality’s fine print. Can I afford to go? Will it be worth it?
And increasingly: can I afford not to go?
In today’s competitive marketplace, the value of an education is simple, suggests the online compensation data provider PayScale: “a better lifestyle… higher pay, more flexible hours and a more satisfying career.” The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics concurs with easy empirical evidence: workers ages 25 and up with at least a bachelor’s degree have higher median earnings ($1,193/week in 2014) than those with some college or an associate degree ($761)—and nearly twice the earnings of those with just a high-school diploma ($668). Starker yet: the difference between a high school and college graduate’s lifetime wages averages about $1 million, reports Georgetown University’s Center on Education and Workforce.
Of all the investments you can make, education may be the most justified—and not just financially. The pursuit of learning is most noble. As the American philosopher John Dewey put it: “Education is not preparation for life; education is life itself.” And yet, the cost of higher learning may be the most subjective price of any investment you ever make, especially as “the return on a college investment isn’t what it used to be,” warns Bloomberg in a recent report.
Education should be the path to a better life. But with seven in 10 U.S. college graduates entering the workplace with some level of debt—$28,400 on average, according to The Institute for College Access and Success—it’s increasingly a path to a harder-to-pay-for life. Determining the value of college—the weight of a degree’s financial benefits plus the intrinsic rewards of education, minus the costs—is no simple task. And with three in 10 young people who define themselves as “just starting out” citing student loans as their biggest financial challenge, according to the latest Allstate/National Journal Heartland Monitor poll, considering the ROI on a college education is essential.
The high price of education is not only burdening graduates, it’s shaking the overall economy. U.S. student debt now totals more than a trillion dollars, says the Federal Reserve of New York—even larger than the country’s total credit card debt. This negative balance is increasing the wealth gap, thwarting savings and future investment, and precluding consumer spending in critical markets from housing to retail and beyond.
The concept of “value” is the million-dollar question, declare researchers at the Institute for Higher Education Policy in Mapping the Postsecondary Data Domain: Problems and Possibilities. “Too many of today’s college students are paying far too much at institutions that offer them far too few chances for success, an outcome neither students nor the country can afford.”
The Student Guide
“Maybe it’s a bit pathetic to say you work in an industry that you wish didn’t have to exist,” admits Deb Clay. “Ideally, the system would be simpler and more transparent.” Five years ago, Clay left behind a career in recruiting and hiring to enter the field of college admissions as an independent educational consultant. High school students are her primary clientele, her guidance rooted in the creation of a plan for why they’re going to college.
“I’m a believer in the value of education,” Clay affirms, but as a counselor, she must also play devil’s advocate. She helps students determine the most practical options given their financial situation, weighing that against other factors like a school’s social scene, available sports and clubs, and most importantly, she says, academics.
Unfortunately, the best academic choice is rarely cut-and-dry in today’s cluttered landscape. “Many schools are not really effective in communicating the kind of environment they provide for students,” Clay notes. She equates the college admissions business to Corporate America in its sales management techniques to recruit fresh blood. When a high school junior registers for the ACT, for instance, a plethora of schools buy up that student’s name and contact information based on his test scores, high school, the economic profile of his zip code… and the list goes on.
And then the mailings—and sometimes phone calls—begin. “[Prospective students think] ‘Wow! I’m getting all these letters… and all these schools want me!’” Clay says. “Well, the schools may or may not want them, but they want them to apply because it helps their rankings. The more students that apply there, the better they look in U.S. News and World Report.”
It’s Clay’s job to help them navigate this murky terrain. By the same token, she says, the advertised “sticker price” for tuition isn’t a true indicator of a school’s cost. Comparing mere tuition fees often undermines programs and majors that truly offer the “best value,” she explains, likening it to airline pricing. “Depending on when you buy your ticket and who you are, you’re going to pay a different price than the person sitting next to you.”
Rankings, True Costs and “Best Value”
Colleges reduce an individual’s costs through financial aid assistance based on family income and academic success in high school, as PayScale notes in its 2015 College ROI Report. Due to the resulting price fluctuations, the U.S. Department of Education now requires schools to provide access to net price calculators so students can better estimate the true costs of attending—though many are unaware of their existence. And those indicators alone don’t tell the whole story, adds Tracy Morris, vice president of student services at Illinois Central College.
“We don’t promote specific cost savings in this manner because we want students to see the breakdown of those average costs by the different categories—tuition, books, living expenses—as well as what they might expect to receive by way of financial aid support,” she explains. “If they can see where the costs are concentrated, they can make better decisions about how to manage them.”
In a national effort to help students assess the true costs of college, the Education Department’s College Affordability and Transparency Center highlights costs, graduation rates, loan default rates, median borrowing and employment figures on a scorecard (collegecost.ed.gov/scorecard) so prospective students can easily compare choices by affordability. Other sites, like College Results Online (collegeresults.org), which examines graduation rates and how those rates have changed over time, more clearly reveal that some colleges do a better job of graduating students than others.
Last October, the Northern Illinois University Center for Governmental Studies released the results of an economic impact study based on student and employee-wage data in Illinois, which offers detailed financial calculations like return on investment per credit hour for state-specific community college programs. Similarly comprehensive, PayScale offers a free College Comparison Tool (payscale.com/college-comparison-tool.aspx) to compare institutions based on earning potential, and another tool comparing lifetime earnings by degree and major (payscale.com/college-salary-report/degrees-and-majors-lifetime-earnings).
Together, this hodgepodge of ranking systems aims to improve the college decision-making process by attempting to better represent “best value.” But by limiting ROI to quantifiable terms, other values—like career training, personal and intellectual growth, and lifelong learning—are often lost in the ranks.
Minding the Gap
“I put quite a bit of emphasis on career direction,” says Clay, which means really getting to know her students. Yet fewer than 10 percent of high school seniors, she estimates, know what they want to do—and actually go on to do it. For the vast, uncertain majority, she promotes extensive research so “they can begin to understand what it is they want to do.” She finds that students’ reasons for attending college vary greatly: the desire to land a good job, a path of self-exploration, and many more.
“From a big-picture standpoint, I try to look at… the academics of college—that is, after all, why they’re going—[and] I spend a lot of time working with them on the financial side,” she says. “The third leg of the stool is the social side. What kind of students do you want to be in school with? Are you a competitive person who thrives under pressure, or do you want a more laid-back environment? Are you liberal-leaning or conservative? Do you want a very religious program? Are you going to play sports? “What happens outside of the classroom is a lot of the determination of how happy and successful a student is in college. You want to be somewhere where you’re going to fit in and be able to find friends, accomplish your goals and get involved with activities outside of the classroom—which is a big part of the learning experience at college,” she explains. Once these details are sorted out, she switches gears, asking students, “How important is money to you?”
Clay is convinced part of the debt problem lies in a disconnect between students’ ability and willingness to take out loans, and a lack of knowledge of what a lifestyle costs. “Expensive” is often just a word to college seniors, she suggests. With the generous grace periods of most loans, the reality of “expensive” may not hit until the first payments come due six months after graduating—as students land their first “real” jobs—and their first tangible taste of just how far a paycheck goes. In fact, “expensive” may not truly hit them for some multiple years following graduation, when rising loan payments begin to prohibit lifestyle choices like marriage and children—factors far beyond the typical freshman’s decision to take on debt.
And that’s one of the toughest parts of Clay’s job—helping students understand what student loans mean in terms of lifestyle. She has her clients go talk to someone in the field to see how they live their lives. What kinds of hours do they work? How do they rank their priorities?
“I am not a believer in studying something [just because] it’s going to make you a ton of money unless… you tell me that money and lifestyle are pretty important to you. I can’t make these decisions for students. The parents, of course, are always very concerned about the money, and I am, too. I would never encourage a student to borrow a lot of money to get a degree in art, for example, because I think you need to be realistic about how much money you’re going to have coming in, versus what it costs you to get that degree.”
But the student debt problem lies deeper—it’s systemic, she suggests. “People in general don’t have a good concept of managing their money and living within their means,” Clay says. “It’s pretty easy to keep getting more and more and more loans.”
That trend was particularly rampant during the recent recession, notes Beth McClain, enrollment management dean at ICC. “We found many students were taking out the maximum in loans because they needed money to pay bills due to unemployment. While it is not as widespread as a few years ago, we still see this… today. Students also tend to borrow the maximum to avoid working while in school. They want to focus all energy on their coursework, rather than having to balance school and a job.”
According to the latest Discover Student Loans Annual Survey, when asked how much responsibility their child should have in paying for college, 46 percent of parents said he or she should fund at least some of the costs, while 15 percent said they expect their child to pay for all of their education.
“I don’t disagree,” says Clay. “But I think they also should have a summer job… and they should contribute that money to their tuition ahead of time… Work in the summer, then pay their tuition in the fall. That concept of… ‘this is how hard I have to work and the hours I have to put in to make X amount per month to be able to pay this tuition’ goes a long way in educating those students on what it’s going to take to pay for the loans.” And yet, summer jobs are harder and harder to come by in today’s economy… but that’s a story for another day.
The Right Fit
In the wake of rising student debt, a trickle of loan forgiveness programs, alternative tuition models and unconventional college programs peck away at the problem. But it’s a subjective battle of justified debt; after all, how do you put a cap on intellectual growth? The truth is, the chances of getting a “good” job still hinge on getting a degree. And as a general rule: the better the school, the better the job potential, all intrinsic benefits of an education aside.
While student debt seems to be an inevitable offshoot of this cycle, control over the amount of personal debt is manageable. In the Discover survey, nearly half of parents said they were limiting which colleges their children could attend based on price, as well as considering additional ways to reduce college costs, such as attending a public versus private university.
Another way is to consider community college. According to the Illinois Community College Board’s 2014 Survey of Colleges, students seeking a bachelor’s degree can lower their costs significantly by completing their initial two years at a community college. It found average tuition and fees at Illinois community colleges ($3,379) are nearly one-fourth that of Illinois public universities ($12,008), and a tenth of that of private universities ($31,333).
Yet another option? Graduate early, Clay suggests. Students can save thousands by strategizing their coursework to complete a program ahead of the stated guidelines. But that’s not always easy… or feasible.
Most of all, Clay says, dig deep and choose wisely. The emphasis on the right school fit for the student can’t be understated—and assessing the true worth of a degree is a multilayered process that requires a great deal of effort and a different way of thinking.
“You don’t just go on the tour with the pleasant admissions person walking backwards… You really have to go meet faculty members, stop kids in the cafeteria and ask them questions, and really get some depth. That’s part of what I do with students: teach them how to do that. My philosophy [is] to not do the work for them—it’s to guide them in doing the work, so they’re developing skills that will be useful in life as they go on.” iBi