Butler County Times Gazette
  • Column: Identifying the true cost of college

  • One of the challenges of working in higher education these days is separating fact from fiction concerning the cost of a college education.   
    First, for full disclosure, in case you haven't noticed, I work at a private, non-profit university. I have several years of experience in public education, but most of my professional life has been spent in private education.
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  • One of the challenges of working in higher education these days is separating fact from fiction concerning the cost of a college education.   
    First, for full disclosure, in case you haven’t noticed, I work at a private, non-profit university. I have several years of experience in public education, but most of my professional life has been spent in private education.
    Second, what prompted my column this month, and from which I will draw much of my factual information, is an excellent article in the December issue of "Vital Speeches" by Richard Ekman, President of the Council of Independent Colleges.
    I will focus on just three “myths”:
    • A college education costs too much and is a bad long-term investment.
    • A private college education cost more than a family can afford.
    • Student debt is out of control
    Today’s college students are increasingly drawn from low- and lower-middle income families, who are often the first in their families to go to college. This change reflects overall demographic changes in the country’s population and has been evenly distributed among four-year public and private colleges.
    College and universities welcome these populations, but also face the similarly increasing challenges of students with greater need for academic support to be successful and much larger need for financial aid, at a time when per capita college student state and federal aid has been reduced.   
    So, first, does a college education cost too much? Depends how you look at it.
    The College Board reports that the average one-year cost, including tuition and fees, at private institutions is about $30,000. In-state public college and universities cost about $10,000.
    However, this is the advertised price. When financial aid is factored in, which is based largely on student need, those numbers are — on average — reduced by about 50 percent.  
    Warning, you may not have any idea what the true cost of a college is unless you get beyond the advertised price and work with the admission and financial aid offices to determine what you or your child will pay, which is largely based on need.  
    Is this too much? Take into consideration that over a lifetime, a person with a college degree likely will earn between $700,000 and $1 million more than a high school graduate and be far less likely to be unemployed.  
    And, what about the difference in cost between public and private colleges? Keep in mind that nearly 80 percent of all private college graduates finish in four years, as compared to 50 percent of public college graduates. This is important if you consider one or two years more of tuition and fees.  
    Page 2 of 2 - And, what about student debt? Without question student debt has increased largely because of the decrease in the real value of public financial aid and the inability of families to pay for their children’s education.
    As a result, although colleges have tried to make up the difference through their own financial aid packages, students have been taking out increasingly large loans — in many cases accepting loans that not only cover tuition and fees, but also room and board and other living expenses.  
    Nevertheless, nearly 30 percent of college students graduate with no debt. Another 30 percent leave with debts under $20,000.
    The average debt is about $28,000, which if taken under government subsidized loans can be paid off over time, in many cases with payments based on income levels. Is this a worthwhile investment?
    There is much more that can be said on this matter, but I need to leave it there and urge you to “do your homework.” You will find that reality will often be quite different.
    Bryan Le Beau is a professor of history and provost at the University of Saint Mary.
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