How much is a college education worth, and why?
According to the United States government’s National Center for Education Statistics, college tuition has increased by 33% in the last two decades, from $18,992 in the 2001-02 school year to $27,357 in 2017-18.
The Manhattan Institute reports that the average cost of tuition and fees at private four-year colleges was $36,880 for the 2019-20 academic year, up by $12,990 from 20 years earlier. For public four-year colleges, the annual cost of tuition and fees averaged $10,440 for 2019-20. Twenty years ago, it was just $5,270. That’s a 100% price increase.
For a public two-year college, tuition and fees averaged $3,730 for 2019-20, up from $2,540 in 20 years.
That’s what it costs. What’s it worth?
That depends on many factors. A degree in any major from certain highly regarded academic institutions may be a lifetime pass to good jobs. A degree in certain highly valued majors from any school may be a reliable path to high earnings. At the other extreme, it’s probably not a good investment to sink tens of thousands of dollars into a degree from a less-than-top school in a major that does not correspond to any skills or knowledge needed in any workplace.
One clue that something is wildly overpriced is that the people selling it emphasize something other than the core product or service when trying to separate you from your money. In the case of higher education, school officials sometimes wax poetic about the college experience. Today, some have shifted from poetic to defensive as more than 300 lawsuits have been filed on behalf of students and parents demanding refunds over the lack of the promised “college experience” during the COVID-19 shutdowns.
The disruption of the COVID-19 pandemic may be deeper and longer lasting in education than in other areas. There are indications that some people may have spent their lockdown time evaluating all their options. For example, California community college officials have been shaken up by new statistics showing that minority students are increasingly choosing for-profit colleges over state-run schools.
The California Community College Chancellor’s Office has actually produced public-service TV commercials in an effort to reach what they call “underrepresented students.” One ad shows an actress sitting in the library of the College of Marin to convey what a spokesman called “a general scent of college life.”
Although tuition at a for-profit college averages about $16,000 nationally, far more than the cost of a community college, the private schools are persuading more and more students to sign up. EdSource.org quoted one official in the California Community Colleges Chancellor’s Office as admitting that the for-profits “do a good job at taking the administrative burden off students and easing the path into their institutions.”
In other words, the non-government schools make it easier to enroll and offer more flexibility. But there’s more to this than just easier navigation. Private for-profit colleges are offering focused education and a faster path to higher earnings. They’re not loading up the curriculum with irrelevant requirements or politically-driven content that paying customers don’t want.
People who don’t have money to burn are apparently deciding that for-profit colleges, even at ten times the price of a community college, are a good value.
EdSource reports that across the country, community colleges lost 12% of their students this spring, but for-profits lost only 1.5%. And in 2020, for-profits saw a 3% increase in enrollment.
In the 2018-19 school year, almost 38% of Black students who transferred to colleges in California went to a for-profit school, which was double the rate just two years earlier. Native Americans and Pacific Islanders also are choosing for-profit schools in disproportionately high numbers.
Community college officials complain that they can’t match the slick marketing campaigns of the for-profit schools. They also warn that the private schools charge high interest on the loans they offer students to cover the balance of the tuition that exceeds what students can receive in financial aid.
But it’s patronizing to suggest that students from underrepresented communities can’t judge the value of educational offerings from competing institutions. What’s actually happening is that students are voting with their feet, and they’re not voting for government schools. That may be a canary in the coal mine for the entire educational establishment in America. Perhaps the pandemic has accelerated a shift in the way many people think about the time and money they are expected to invest in a college degree.
Another wild card is the potential effect of changes to the college admissions process. The University of California announced in May that it is dropping the SAT and ACT exams as a freshman admission requirement, a change that could take hold nationally. If it means some high-achieving students will be turned away from top schools because the admissions process values immutable personal characteristics over grades and test scores, it’s possible that more than one type of educational institution will step into the breach and offer those students another path to high-salaried jobs.
Stagnant or failing institutions can survive for a long time on their old reputations, but a sudden change of circumstances can cause a permanent shift of perspective, like a sight that can’t be unseen. A health scare and a year away from the classroom may have done it. Higher education in America might be headed for a reckoning.
Susan Shelley is an editorial writer and columnist for the Southern California News Group. [email protected] Twitter: @Susan_Shelley
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