Report Helps Answer the Question: Is a College Degree Worth the Cost?


Most people go to college to improve their financial prospects, though there are other benefits to attending a postsecondary institution. But as the average cost of a four-year degree has risen to six figures, even at public universities, it can be hard to know if the money is well spent.

A new analysis by HEA Group, a research and consulting firm focused on college access and success, may help answer the question for students and their families. The study compares the median earnings of former college students, 10 years after they enrolled, with basic income benchmarks.

The analysis found that a majority of colleges exceed minimum economic measures for their graduates, like having a typical annual income that is more than that of a high school graduate with no higher education ($32,000, per federal Scorecard data).

Still, more than 1,000 schools fell short of that threshold, though many of them were for-profit colleges concentrating in short-term credentials rather than traditional four-year degrees.

Seeing whether a college’s former students are earning “reasonable” incomes, said Michael Itzkowitz, HEA Group’s founder and president, can help people weigh whether they want to cross some institutions off their list. Someone deciding between similar colleges, for example, can see the institution that has produced students with significantly higher incomes.

While income isn’t necessarily the only criteria to consider when comparing schools, Mr. Itzkowitz said, “it’s a very good starting point.”

The report used data from the Education Department’s College Scorecard to assess the earnings of about five million former students who had attended about 3,900 institutions of higher education, 10 years after they first enrolled. (The analysis includes data for people who didn’t complete their degree.) The report includes public colleges as well as private nonprofit and for-profit schools; the schools may offer nondegree certificates, associate’s degrees and bachelor’s degrees.

The analysis found that schools where students earned less than their peers who never attended college were generally those offering nondegree certificates, which can often be completed in 18 months or less, as well as for-profit institutions, although the list also includes some public and private nonprofit schools. At 71 percent of for-profit schools, a majority of students were earning less than high school graduates 10 years after enrolling, compared with 14 percent of public institutions and 9 percent of private nonprofit schools, Mr. Itzkowitz said.

“College is, indeed, worth it,” Mr. Itzkowitz said, but paying for it can be “substantially riskier” depending on the type of school you attend or the credential you seek.

(Another report found that former students of for-profit colleges tend to experience more financial risk than those who attended similarly selective public colleges. Those risks include having to take on more debt for higher education, a greater likelihood of defaulting on student loans and a lower likelihood of finding a job.)

Jason Altmire, president and chief executive of Career Education Colleges and Universities, a trade group representing for-profit career colleges, said lumping together schools offering mainly short-term certificate programs with colleges offering four-year degrees didn’t make sense. People who want to work in certain careers — hairdressing, for instance — generally can’t work in the field unless they earn a certificate, he said.

Mr. Altmire also said that income data from for-profit certificate schools might be skewed by “gender bias” because the programs had a higher proportion of women, who were more likely than men to work part-time while raising families, lowering a school’s reported median income.

The HEA report also compared colleges’ performance with other benchmarks, like the federal poverty line ($15,000 annual income for an individual), which is used to determine eligibility for benefits for government programs like subsidized health insurance and Medicaid. Incomes at the “vast majority” of colleges exceeded this cutoff, the report found, although 18 — nearly all of them for-profit schools offering nondegree certificate programs in beauty or hairstyling — had students with median incomes below that threshold.

Majors also matter, since those in science, technology, engineering and nursing typically lead to significantly higher salaries than majors in the arts or humanities. (Last year, the HEA published a separate analysis of the college majors that pay the most.)

When comparing the earnings after college, students and families shouldn’t look at the data in a vacuum, said Kristina Dooley, a certified educational planner in Hudson, Ohio. Many schools where former students go on to be top earners have programs focusing on health sciences, technology or business, but that may not be what you want to study.

“Use it as one piece of information,” Ms. Dooley said.

She said that students shouldn’t rule out a college just because it wasn’t at the pinnacle of the income list. Do ask questions, though — like whether its career services office helps with setting up internships and making alumni connections to assist you in finding a good-paying job.

Amy S. Jasper, an independent educational consultant in Richmond, Va., said postgraduate income might matter more to students and families who had to get a loan for college. “How much debt do they want to incur?” she said. “That is something that needs to be taken into consideration.”

But, she said, the benefits of college are not just financial. “I’d like to think that picking the right school is also about becoming a better person and contributing to the world.”

Here are some questions and answers about college costs:

Marquee names, like most Ivy League schools, Stanford and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, are heavily represented at the top of HEA’s analysis. Their students had median incomes of at least $90,000 a decade after enrollment. (A handful of for-profit schools, focused on careers like nursing and digital production, can be found there as well.) But the highest-earning colleges on the list? Samuel Merritt University, a nursing and health sciences school in Oakland, Calif., and the University of Health Sciences and Pharmacy in St. Louis, each with incomes above $129,000. You can see the data on the HEA website.

The average estimated “sticker” price for college — the published cost for tuition, fees, housing, meals, books and supplies, transportation and personal items — ranges from about $19,000 a year at a two-year community college to about $28,000 for in-state students at a public four-year university to almost $58,000 at a four-year private college, according to 2022-23 data from the College Board. Some students, however, may pay much less because of financial aid.

A federal “gainful employment” rule, which aims to make career programs more accountable, is scheduled to take effect in July. The new rule, which mostly affects for-profit schools but also applies to certificate programs at all types of colleges, requires schools to show that at least half of their graduates earn more than a typical high school graduate in their state and that their graduates have affordable student loan payments. Colleges that miss either benchmark must alert students that the school could lose access to federal financial aid. Schools that fail the same standard twice in three years will become ineligible for federal aid programs.



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