The Cost of Higher Education

Stei111202Higher education is fast becoming essential for a comfortable future life, and it is even faster becoming unaffordable except for the rich. Horror tales abound of students graduating with crushing debts. Just today there was a story of a student approaching graduation with a good degree in a STEM field but with $190,000 in debt. When asked about her feeling about the future, she answered succinctly, “I am scared.

However there is a problem with this picture. In fact, overwhelming debt is not the price of a good education. It is the cost of poor choices. This might be excusable if the information needed to avoid this problem were hard to find, but it is not. Can you use a computer to search the Internet? If not, you aren’t prepared for college anyway. But if so, you can easily find excellent colleges that are relatively affordable, at least in the sense of minimizing your debt load.

There are good schools, with representatives in virtually every state, where a high quality education can be obtained for less than $11,000 per year, and many for much less than that. I picked this limit for discussion because it results in a workable debt load while truly opening the field for a quality education in any field of interest. This is the “net cost of attendance“, which is a far better measure than the published tuition and fee costs.

Total cost of attendance” is the yearly sum of tuition and required fees, books and supplies, room and board, and incidental expenses. The net cost subtracts from that the average amount of federal, state/local government, or institutional grant or scholarship aid. Even accounting for inflation, this may result at worst in a large but manageable debt, especially if the college major is chosen with a judicial eye on earning potential. And this doesn’t even account for any contributions that a student can make from work or savings.

This claim is not an idle boast. Here are just a few examples. The University of Massachusetts – Boston, actually in Amherst, has a national recognition and vast resources. Its net cost is $10,575. University of North Carolina – Charlotte has a similar academic reputation to the better known campus at Chapel Hill and is the state’s principal research university. Its net cost is $10,442. Stanford University is one of the nation’s elite universities and it deserves this reputation. Its net cost is $10,109. San Diego State University is well-regarded and is considered by Forbes to be among our most entrepreneurial universities. Its net cost is $9,856. Indiana University – Kokomo is smaller than its Bloomington counterpart but offers a similarly top-class education, with a student-to-faculty ratio of just 18:1. Its net cost is $9,834. As I’ve said, this just scratches the surface.

Advanced degrees, often almost essential in certain fields, entail more than the standard 4-year course of study and hence add to the debt burden. However it is usually possible to obtain graduate fellowships or other university-sponsored work that will minimize this cost. Moreover, there is the possibility of using the baccalaureate degree as entrance to your field in a company that helps sponsor graduate education for its employees.

If you are a good student with the grades and resume that can gain you entrance into our elite universities, the picture is even rosier. Both of the two top 10 universities that I attended make a firm offer that no qualified applicant will be unable to attend for purely financial reasons. They will make up the shortfall no matter how large, with the understanding that the student and her parents will contribute what they reasonably can.

The bottom line is that, as is often the case, financial difficulties are often self-imposed. But there is a hidden but important issue. Don’t just assume that this major investment of money and time will necessarily lead you to a life of plenty and the ability to support a family. A major in Elizabethan literature is its own reward but not likely in financial terms. Even some STEM majors are now at risk to technology advance, as I have discussed before. Make smart decisions.