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Good School Hunting

“You dropped a hundred and fifty grand on
an education you could’ve gotten for a dollar
fifty in late charges at the public library.”

-Good Will Hunting


Now before the villagers storm the castle with sickle and sword, let me just say I’m a patron of the arts and a strong supporter of a liberal arts education. “Higher” education makes us better people and indirectly makes our world a better place. There is more to a college education than simply job training.

Having said that, the cost of education is so prohibitively high that the option of spending four years (or more) “finding oneself” on a university campus is limited to the small percentage of our population who have deep pockets. The rest of us need to approach it understanding that we need some return on our educational investment. We must choose those schools whose diplomas can be monetized to make our investment worthwhile. Even a “weak” degree can be worth the investment if it comes from a great university.

PayScale Human Capital is an analytics company that surveys individuals and companies to determine what makes an individual valuable to a firm and what compensation is necessary to retain them. The company also publishes studies on the impact of factors like location and education on employment. In 2012, they released “The PayScale College ROI Report,” which ranked over 850 schools in terms of the return on investment students received by graduating from a particular university. With information from the report and estimated costs from, I created the table below that shows three schools from different tiers of the study and the associated costs of attending them. All three universities rank well within the upper 50th percentile of the study and have good reputations.

Northern Illinois University (#401) Marquette University
University of Notre Dame
Tuition & Fees $11,484 $34,640 $44,605
Room & Board $10,648 $10,730 $12,512
Books & Supplies $1,400 $1,008 $1,050
Estimated Personal Expenses $2,396 $1,800 $1,200
Transportation $700 $240 $750
Estimated Total Cost (Annual) $26,628 $48,418 $60,117
Four-Year Total $106,512 $193,672 $240,468

Sources: College Board for expenses and PayScale for university ROI ranking.

The three examples show a state university, a private university and a university that has a “top 10” ROI. In all three cases, the estimated cost for four years is significant. Of course the table assumes that costs will remain constant, which is probably not the case.

How fast has the cost of college and tuition risen? Bureau of Labor statistics show that from January 1978 when the CPI was 62.7, cost has risen annually at a rate of 3.8 percent to hit 231.199 in January 2013.1 During the same period, the portion of CPI that measures college tuition and fees rose from 57.6 to 720.934, an annual increase of 7.49 percent,2 nearly twice the overall CPI.

How significant is this? A recent Washington Post article cited a paper by the New York Fed. The paper suggests that student loans—an absolute necessity for most—are a drag on the economy. The paper notes that student debt has grown over the last decade, citing that 43 percent of Americans under the age of 25 had student debt in 2012, with the average debt burden of $20,326, compared to 2003, when only 25 percent had debt, with an average debt burden of $10,649. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau reached a similar conclusion after examining the $1 trillion in outstanding student loan debt.

Now if a student graduates from a university with a diploma that translates into a career,3 the debt begins to evaporate. If, however, the student finds himself or herself unemployed or underemployed, there’s a problem. The statistics here are somewhat nebulous, so it’s difficult to measure the number of graduates in jobs unrelated to their education.

Harvard University’s Graduate School of Education released a report in February 2011 called “Pathways to Prosperity.” The report stated that 46 percent of those who pursue a four-year degree drop-out.3 In “Why College Students Stop Short of the Degree,” Reuters quotes William C. Symonds, lead author of “Pathways to Prosperity,” as saying, “You will find a lot of kids with a four-year degree who do not have a clue as to what they’ll do.”

So what needs to change? This problem has so many moving parts it’s difficult to determine what to address first. But Mr. Symonds’ quote is a good place to start. Given that those who have the greatest vested interest in a student’s success are the students themselves, they should assume the role (as William Ernest Henley would say) of “captain of their fate.”

The most important piece of the puzzle is the student. Students now need to have a reasonable idea of why they are attending college, know where they want to be after graduation and determine what will get them there. The fantasy of “finding oneself” is just that, a fantasy.

As one who is counted among the “composition book/slide rule”’ generation, I was able to feel my way through college and slowly evolve into a business school graduate. Today’s graduates suffer from such behavior, and tomorrow’s are trying to quickly adapt to this new world.

Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the Pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.

In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.

Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds, and shall find, me unafraid.

It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll.
I am the master of my fate: 
I am the captain of my soul.

– William Ernest Henley

1 CPI-All Urban Consumers (All Items): 62.7 in January 1978, 231.199 in January 2013, reflects an annual inflation rate of 3.7987%. 62.7(1.037987)^35=231.199.
2 CPI-All Urban Consumers (College Tuition and Fees): 57.6 in January 1978, 720.934 in January 2013, reflects an annual inflation rate of 7.487%. 57.6(1.07487)^35=720.934.
3 Harvard University’s Graduate School of Education’s “Pathways to Prosperity” report (February 2011, page 8).

Posted by: Leo Murphy, TT CampusConnect™ Program Manager

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