Wednesday, May 28, 2014

The College Question That Won’t Go Away

By:  Patrick O'Connor Ph.D

High school commencement is the unofficial end of the college application season, so it’s surprising to see the large number of articles and talk shows still focusing on the question, Is College Worth It?   It’s almost like clockwork; in  April, we find out Ivy U admitted three percent of their students; students are  then surprised by how little financial aid they will receive from their first choice college; we then wonder if college is really worth the cost—and then, it’s Mother’s Day.

The cost question seems to be holding on this year for a number of reasons.  Let’s take a look at each one:

The Economy is Better, but Not Great  Let’s face it—our fascination with the cost of college is tied directly with the number of parents who still don’t have the good paying jobs they had five years ago. If the middle class weren’t shrinking, the cost of college would be a nuisance, but not a nightmare. As it stands, counselors will have a few more years of conversations where students start locally and transfer to their dream school.

State Governments Claim They’re Broke  A good amount of the rise in college tuition is actually a shift in funding.  State governments have less revenue, so they give less money to public colleges; this requires the college to make up the difference by raising tuition.  Since it’s an election year, no state is going to raise taxes—but they may find a way to give more money to colleges, since that’s a popular issue. Of course, that money will come from somewhere, but you aren’t likely to know from where until November.  Keep an eye on this.

Pipe Fitters Make a Good Living, Too  America’s fascination with a four-year college degree arguably went a little overboard ten years ago, leading community college leaders and trades unions to remind us that their programs are valuable as well.  It’s certainly true that everyone has their own talents, and there are very few plumbers that are starving—but the average Bachelor’s Degree holder makes $600,000 more over a lifetime than anyone else, and their unemployment rate right now is around 3.5%.  Not everyone needs four years of college, but everyone should be prepared to take a long, hard look at that option before they turn it down.

Too Many Students Have Too Much Debt  Another casualty of the Great Recession is the idea of Good Debt. An engineer that borrows the average $29,000 to get a Bachelor’s Degree will likely walk into a starting salary of $70,000—so it’s worth the investment.  Degree holders in the liberal arts realize the same quality of return over a longer period of time, as long as they finish college. It’s time to bring that idea back to life.

This is an Expensive Risk for an Undecided Student  The one takeaway of this protracted discussion on cost is to find a way to balance college cost with the need for students to grow and explore. Most adults didn’t leave college with the major they started with, but that was before there were large number of students who drop out with no degree and significant debt. 

Cost makes it harder to give college students room to grow, yet that’s the whole point of college.  Without an answer to this essential question, it’s likely the discussion may reach beyond the Fourth of July—and rightfully so. Let’s hope we find an answer, and soon. 

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