Making Sure College Is Worth The Cost

Sep 11, 2015
Originally published on September 14, 2015 9:49 am

The US News & World Report Best Colleges rankings, the leaderboard of competitive college admissions, are out this week. And all this week on All Things Considered, we've been talking with students who graduated from high school in Montgomery County, Md., four or five years ago.

All nine of these students faced the same questions: Where to go to college: public, private, community? How to pay for it? And now, depending on the choices they made, a new question looms: Has it been worth it?

Carlos Mejia-Ramos, at Montgomery College, voiced the concerns of many working-class and middle-class students when he said, "I don't think education should be $50,000 a year."

That sticker shock may be misleading. Columbia University, where Becca Arbacher attended, is one of only a handful that charge north of $50,000 for tuition and fees. But nine out of 10 freshmen at pricey private institutions get a discount, averaging over 50 percent.

Still, college debt, whether at public, private or community colleges, does make a big difference in many students' lives. As Evan Bonham, who studies music at NYU, told Robert Siegel, "I'm getting ready to graduate — the debt's starting to creep up on me in terms of my mindset and looking towards jobs."

College is all about expanding your options. But debt narrows options.

Research shows it can influence new grads to take a job that's not as great a fit. It has ripple effects on savings, living on your own, getting married, starting a business, buying a house and a car. Even mental and physical health. Gallup did a major poll last year of college graduates and found that those with debt reported lower well-being, not just financially but physically.

The bigger question might be: What, exactly do expensive private colleges have to offer in exchange for their high tab?

The Gallup poll, of nearly 30,000 college graduates last year, found the percentages of students who were "engaged" with their work and "thriving" in all aspects of their lives, did not vary based on whether the grads went to a public or private four-year college, not even one of the top 100 in those U.S. News & World Report rankings.

And as our colleagues at Planet Money have repeatedly reported, the choice of a college major has a far greater impact on an individual's income than the choice of college.

Taking the odds of graduation into account changes the value equation too.

In fact a recent study showed that borrowers who owe the LEAST in student loans are actually MOST likely to default.

How can that be? Those smaller balances belong to students who drop out without a degree.

In that way, the nine students we talked to are luckier than most. They're on the cusp of graduation — for the four-year students — and transfer, for the two-year students. Many, many freshmen never make it that far.

Montgomery College, the local community college, reports that 40 percent of its students either graduated or transferred within three years — that's twice the national average for public two-year colleges.

The University of Maryland, the big state university located in College Park, has a four-year graduation rate of 67 percent — also much better than the national rate of 58 percent.

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All this week, we've introduced you to a group of students who all graduated from high school in the same Maryland county four or five years ago. They all faced the same questions - where to go to college and how to pay for it. Students like Carlos Mejia, who chose community college rather than apply to a private college where there might be a big price tag.


CARLOS MEJIA: I didn't want to do that. I don't think education should be $50,000 a year.

SIEGEL: We also heard from students who went to the University of Maryland and who did go to colleges that charge $50,000 a year and more. And we're going to take a few moments today to see how these stories fit into a national perspective. We're talking with Anya Kamenetz, who is part of the NPR Ed team.



SIEGEL: We've heard from nine students who are either about to graduate this year or in mid-year, or some of whom who are getting associate degrees or one who's gotten them from community college.

A typical, atypical group? What'd you think?

KAMENETZ: You know, it's interesting. I think the least typical thing about them is actually that they graduated high school at 18, went straight off to college and are, for the most part, either close to graduation or continuing their educations now. That's very much our national image, but that is no longer the typical student. At four-year colleges nationwide, only 39 percent who start full-time make it to actually be seniors four years later. And at two-year public colleges - this is closer to our sample - only about 20 percent graduated within three years.

SIEGEL: There's a lot of research showing that there are real benefits to a college degree. Is there a lot of research telling you whether it matters a lot if you pick a public or a private college or a two-year college?

KAMENETZ: So I think what the students that you've spoken with are demonstrating is that there are great students and great choices no matter where you go. And the research does bear that out. You know, if you look at your income, for example, there's a much wider spread by major than there is between public and private colleges. So it's nursing versus theater, not Columbia versus the University of Maryland.

Or take Gallup. Last year they surveyed almost 30,000 college graduates, and they found the percentages of students who were, quote-unquote, "thriving" in different aspects of their lives - socially, emotionally, economically - did not vary at all based on whether you went to public or private, or even one of the top 100 in the U.S. News & World Report rankings. It just didn't matter.

SIEGEL: The community college kids whom I spoke with, well, one is going on to acting school. One is at a four-year university now. The other intends to get a bachelor's degree in nursing.

Is that kind of success typical of community college students?

KAMENETZ: Well, community college students, you know, these students have the fewest resources. It's - those colleges tend to serve the poorest students, and so graduation rates are not great. You know, innovators in the higher ed space are really looking at ways to help more students graduate and smooth those pathways onto lots of different options because they see the community college as really being the future of where higher education is going.

SIEGEL: Can the big, expensive private colleges justify what they charge?

KAMENETZ: Those huge price tags are not always what they seem. You know, Columbia University, for example, has the highest price tag in the country for a general university. But Becca, one of your students who went there, like many students - 9 out of 10 students, in fact, at private colleges - get a discount. And those discounts are averaging over 50 percent.

SIEGEL: We heard a lot from these students about the debts they've incurred to go to college.

KAMENETZ: You know, debt is not always what meets the eye. If you look who's really in trouble with student loans, what the data shows is the students who default are the ones that have smallest loan balances, the ones that borrowed but didn't finish their degree, whereas the students with higher debt balances actually may be better off because they were going to graduate school or something like that. At the same time, you know, college is supposed to be about expanding your options, but debt really does narrow those options. It can affect, you know, your ability to save, live on your own, get married, buy a house or a car and even mental health.

SIEGEL: That's Anya Kamenetz of the NPR Ed team.

Anya thanks for talking with us.

KAMENETZ: Thanks Robert.

SIEGEL: And we'll be hearing more from the nine students we introduced you to as this academic year progresses. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.