The High Cost of Education?

cornelltowerAs the masthead says “no opinions, just code“, I rarely give my opinions about things.  But, I recently saw an interesting documentary on CNN called Inside the Ivory Tower – Is College Worth the Cost and since I am a Professor I thought I’d give another perspective.  I totally get where these guys were coming from, as they showed example after example of students accumulating upwards of $200,000 in student debt.  Many of the interviews showed bewildered parents torn between their limited finances and the prospect of having to pay $60,000 a year for a college education for their children.

These stories always focus on the extreme cases – the $60,000 a year education.  But, there are other options.  I was a product of the SUNY system: Oneonta, Buffalo, and Syracusefor my bachelors, masters, and doctorate, and am a big believer in what SUNY does.  My undergraduate education was pretty cheap ($600 a semester!), and my masters education was also cheap ($900 a semester).  For my doctorate, I only went because I had a graduate assistantship and didn’t have to pay.   Now, I know that college costs have gone up dramatically, but I wondered if there is a reasonable route to get your kid through college.

Let me say at the outset, if you are wealthy and can afford to send your kid to a $60,000 a year school, go for it.  Those schools are wonderful, and give the kids fantastic memories of their college years.  But, if you are a middle class family, or even lower on the salary scale, there are other options.

Lets take the worst case scenario: you’ve got no money for school and you don’t bother trying for any financial aid – you are on your own.

Here in my county (like almost every other county in America) there is a community college.  Our community college (Worwic),  costs $112 a credit hour (including fees).   Therefore, a two year Associates degree will cost around $6,700 – or $3,360 a year.  Once you graduate from Worwic, you can then transfer to our local University – Salisbury University.  Salisbury University costs $8,400 a year (including fees).

So, without any financial aid or scholarships, a 4 year college degree will cost $23,500 (of course there are other costs like books, but we’ll leave that off for now).  How can you pay for that?  Again, lets consider the worst case scenario: you have to put yourself through school.

If you worked on campus for $8.00 an hour, 20 hours a week, 32 weeks a year (two semesters) you would make $5,120.  Now, lets say you got another job for the summer making $8.00 an hour for 40 hours a week, for 10 weeks: you would make $3,200 – this gives you the month of January off.  Combining the two, you would make $8,320 a year or $33,280 over four years.

Therefore, your income is $33,280 and your college costs are $23,500.  It is certainly possible to pay for college.  This is a back-of-the-napkin estimate, and there should be more costs involved like books, parking, lunch on campus, etc.  But it should illustrate that choosing this particular route makes college a little more affordable.  Now, the reality is, if you have good grades you will get merit based scholarships.  In fact, it is not uncommon for an “A” student in high school to receive $2,500-$3,000 a year in scholarships at Salisbury University, bringing the costs down.

Now a reality check – working a job while going to college is hard.  You don’t have time to go to all the parties, football games, concerts on campus, or other fun events.  Living at home with mom and dad is also hard.  Being a commuter at college can feel isolating if you don’t find ways to integrate into the campus life (hence, the on-campus job vs. working somewhere else).  Also, last time I checked, the Community College doesn’t have an 80,000 seat football stadium, they won’t be playing in the Final Four anytime soon, and there won’t be any seminars from a theoretical physicist who is working on solving time travel – and did I mention you are living with mom and dad?  Remember, we are looking at a worst case scenario.

But, what you will get is a solid college education, small class sizes, and faculty who focus on you, the undergraduate.  What you make of that education is up to you.  My next post will focus on how to get the most of this kind of education.

4 thoughts on “The High Cost of Education?

  1. Excellent post. Wish someone had nudged me more this way at the beginning of my college career (I went to an out of state school before SU, and am (still) paying for it)

  2. Ben: I know where you went, as we’ve spoken about it in the past. No need to mention the schools (don’t want to throw anyone under the bus), but one of them had the enormous campus, the big sports program, and quite frankly some pretty famous researchers. Looking back over that, how might you give advice to a young 18 year old and his parents who see the big name as necessary? While I loved having you in my classes, do you think the tradeoff between smallscale SU outweighed the other intangibles of the bigger school?

    • In my limited experience and based on what I’ve heard from others, research institutions (generally these big name schools) tend to be less effective with instruction in the undergraduate classroom. These (admittedly brilliant and inspiring) researchers can be good instructors, but they have steep time pressures on them to publish, win grants, and manage graduate students. They generally aren’t teaching their labs (grad students like me are doing that) and class sizes are larger.

      As for the other non-academic perks of a big school, I think students need to honestly assess what they are there for. It sounds trite, and it’s hard to remember during the picturesque fall-time campus tour (especially as campuses of all sizes are seemingly in an arms race to lure students in with fancy dorms, enormous buildings, and sprawling athletic centers). There is no reason not to enjoy the benefits that a campus might offer, but a student’s number one priority should be to learn and build skills that the marketplace wants.

      Smaller institutions like SU that are more focused on undergrads not only have an advantage in smaller class sizes and better instruction, but in my experience also offer more opportunities to develop real experience while in school (e.g. ESRGC, and other local gov/business connections for co-ops and internships).

      Big research institutions have their place for (some) graduate work, but for a undergraduate education, a University like SU is an ideal place to build that education/skills base while keeping costs under control.

  3. My response is from the limited perspective of someone who has only worked in the high-tech software, web development, and geospatial industries. I studied geography at Salisbury, and in my case the things I learned & personal growth I went through while there, as cliche as it is, helped me find myself and figure out the direction I want to go in life.

    Recently, I have worked closely with several people that chose to not go to college who are several years younger than I am. Luckily, the people I work with are progressive and can look past a diploma. The workers that did not go to college are able to earn the same pay, set their own direction, and contribute & lead teams trying to accomplish impressive goals.

    Working with these people have changed my views on what higher education should be. I don’t think every (or even most) kids should go to college. The idea that going to a school is an insurance policy for them to meet some level of success is outdated and less likely every year (especially with the financials you pointed out). Outgoing high school kids and their mentors/parents should take a hard look at the students maturity and interests and help them find a path. I personally needed college because I was basically a jellyfish, just floating through life until things clicked. Other people, including people I studied with, had the ability and maturity to be just as successful without the formal education and associated debts.

    All education has costs, though. Those costs don’t have to always be money.
    If you want to be a writer, read, write, blog, publish anywhere, and pay your library late fees.
    If you want to be a web developer, view source, practice by doing, and buy some domain names and cheap hosting.
    If you want to be a surgeon and operate on me when I hurt myself, please go to college.

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