Is the Cost of College Worth It?

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Before you fork over tuition, consider how effective the college you're attending is at graduating its students, whether community college is a better fit, or if a degree even matters to your future.

Everyone knows college isn’t cheap.  In fact, college has gotten so expensive that more and more prospective students and their parents are questioning whether the benefits of a higher education justify the cost.  But the cost/benefit equation of a higher education matters to more than just the families affected.  Because thanks to taxpayer assistance, in some measure we’re all paying the cost of college.

Earlier this month, American Institutes for Research (AIR) launched a new website to help publicize college dropout rates and the tax burden they’re creating.

The folks at AIR, a non-profit that specializes in research on health and education, point out that fewer than 3 in 5 students who seek a four-year bachelor’s degree wind up with one within six years. AIR’s new website,, shows that colleges and governments nationally spend more than $3 billion a year on financial aid for new students who drop out after only one year of classes. For those that never return to school, that’s money wasted.

The costs and benefits of getting a degree

Statistics continue to suggest that college grads make more money. The U.S. Department of Education points out that the median salary of someone with a four-year degree is significantly higher that of someone with a high school diploma. There’s data to back up that claim: Here’s a chart that breaks down average salaries by education from the 1980s through 2008. The median salary of someone with a high school diploma in 2008: $30,000. With a bachelor’s degree, that number went up more than 53 percent to $46,000.

But what about the cost? One way parents are asked to judge the quality of a public or private high school is how many of their students graduate and go on to college. Using the same yardstick with a University, one might expect that colleges with higher tuition would be more effective at graduating its students.  Unfortunately, however, that’s not the case. Here’s a chart from comparing five-year graduation rates to the cost of in-state tuition at some of the largest public universities.

As an example, the University of California at Berkeley graduates more than 86 percent of its students within five years at an average yearly tuition cost of $7,165. Compare that to the University of Florida, which graduates about the same percentage, 77 percent, at an average annual rate of $3,257. So in terms of providing a student with a degree, UF gets similar results for about half the price.

But contrast both of those with Kent State University, which graduates people at a rate similar to community colleges – 27 percent – but charges a much higher average $8,430 a year in tuition.

If you’re considering enrolling yourself or your kid at one of these schools, take a look at these sites, and look into how prospective schools do with academic advising, course offerings, and retention programs. makes it easy to look at a particular school’s performance and compare it to others in the same state. is a little messier in providing the same kind of info, but it also lets you customize and tailor searches a little more to the specific schools and variables you’re interested in.

Weighing the alternatives of community and career colleges

Not everybody wants or needs to attend a four-year public university. Check out our story, 5 In-Demand Jobs That Pay Well and Don’t Require a 4-Year Degree. Then take another look at the average salary chart from above which notes that in 2008, an associate’s degree boosted the average worker’s net worth 20 percent, from a $30,000 salary to a $36,000 one. A two-year commitment is a lot more manageable for some people, both in terms of time and cost. But there are some downsides.

Community colleges were recently knocked for overselling a “poorer-than-expected” education experience by higher education marketing and research firm Norton Norris. In a summary of a research report released Oct. 4 [PDF] the company points out that community colleges:

  • have poor graduation rates
  • have poor post-graduation employment rates
  • have class waiting lists of up to two years
  • often don’t help with finding jobs
  • don’t track job placement

The full report [PDF] features direct quotes from a number of students about their lousy experiences at community colleges, and none-too-subtly suggests that career colleges are a better option for both the student and the taxpayer.

A lot of those complaints, though, are clearly from people coming straight out of high school and not getting the support system they need, which community colleges can rarely afford to provide. Community colleges might make a lot of sense for the right type of person: someone who’s already working – who at some level knows where their life is going and doesn’t need much hand-holding -but wants to return to school and improve their net worth.

If you really don’t know what to do in college and just feel like you “should be there,” seriously evaluate your goals and talk to a school counselor. If you feel like you’re wasting time and money, consider working full-time while you figure out what you really want to do.

And if you really know what you want but think you just can’t afford it, check out our story 6 Tips to Pay Less for a College Degree to learn about possible scholarships, loan forgiveness programs, and even a handful of schools that don’t charge tuition. If you really want that degree, you can make it work.

Stacy Johnson

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