Cost of Degree, Educational Consulting, Majors and Areas of Study, Return on Investment

Thinking Through Degree Choices

Quite a bit of educational consulting is focused on getting students admitted to college, but not enough is focused on what students do when they get there. In my years of experience in higher education, I’ve learned that you’re getting the cart before the horse by thinking that way. Choose a major first, and then choose the best college for it. But how do you choose a major? I’d like to encourage you to think about your degree choices in terms of three central questions:

  1. What are the emotional facets of your decision to choose a specific college or major?
  2. What are the professional facets of that decision?
  3. What are the economic facets of that decision?

Let’s explore these one at a time.

  1. The emotional content of your decision to pursue a major or college matters. While not every major will set you on a predetermined career path, your study still defines you and the doors that are either opened or closed for you in the future. Your choice of a college or major does not mean everything, but it still means a lot, so you want to spend some time thinking about who you are and what you really love before choosing a college or major. Engineers tend to be the highest paid graduates right out of college: are you that good at math? Do you love it? Are you really able to pursue a vocation that you don’t love just for the money it might make you?  Some people make this decision, find their happiness outside of work, and live fulfilling lives. Other people make expensive and time consuming mid-career shifts from jobs that they hate to courses of study that will lead them to jobs they love. What do you think you can live with? If it’s at all possible, pursue a course of study that you love. You will do better in it, and your skill sets and enthusiasm can open doors in skills-appropriate fields. If that course of study doesn’t lead to a clear career path, minor in something that does, like being an English major who minors in business or web development. It will make you easier to place in entry-level positions.
  2. The professional content of your decision to pursue a course of study should be considered as well. Some degree programs are essentially vocational schools: programs such as law, education, and engineering focus your education on one specific industry. You may be able to switch career paths down the road, but your skill sets will be fairly narrow and limiting. Liberal arts majors such as English, history, art, and philosophy, on the other hand, tend to be trainable across a wide range of fields and find success in many different industries, but they sometimes have a harder time getting initially placed because their degrees aren’t clearly associated with a job function. They have much better soft skills than the hordes of B.B.A. and M.B.A. graduates produced every year, though, so they can distinguish themselves once employed. It’s usually smart to pair liberal arts degrees with something like programming or business minors to help employability right out of college. Remember that a degree does not get you a job. It only makes you eligible to apply for certain jobs, and different degrees make you eligible to apply for different kinds of jobs.
  3. The economic content of your decision to pursue a degree is related to the following factors:
    1. Cost of the degree.
    2. Income potential for the degree.
    3. Age to retirement (related to no. 2) — your income earning potential is limited to your age at graduation. So, obviously, the best financial decision in the degree seeking process, or the best return on your investment for the cost of your degree, is to pick a degree that is pursued cheaply and yields high pay as soon as possible. In the current market, that would be a degree in petroleum or chemical engineering with no debt at graduation. But probably less than 5% of all high school graduates have the math skills to be engineers of any kind, so what do the rest of us do? We try to avoid going into high debt for low paying careers, especially late in life when our income potential is limited. You can save a lot of money by starting in community college and then transferring to a state university, or at least starting at a state university. Keep in mind that the economic value of a course of study is not a measure of its inherent value: that is only a reflection of market conditions at the time, and they can vary. The highest paying fields right now would hit bottom if saturated with more graduates than available jobs. People aren’t paid what they are worth. They’re paid on a supply and demand basis. Pay is only driven up when employers have to compete with each other for employees. Pay bottoms out when graduates are a dime a dozen, and especially when there’s not a lot of money in the industry.

What I’ve just described are the three factors that you should consider when selecting a degree program at any level. While I can’t tell you which of these are more important to you personally, Bright Futures Educational Consulting does have an extensive proprietary college choice survey that can guide you through your decision making process. If you’re independently wealthy and don’t have to worry about lost income or student loan debt in your pursuit of a degree, pursue what you love and forget about everything else. If you have to worry about debt, think about the other two. But no one can tell you how much each of these factors will weigh in your own decision making process. Be careful about using an emotional logic for financial decisions. That doesn’t usually turn out well. Be careful about being purely financially motivated as well, unless that’s who you are.

In other words, if you’re like most people, seek a balance between the three. Your ideal degree program at any level would be where your passions intersect with your best professional identity and your most viable financial position. Most of us have to make compromises, so be careful about compromising any one of these too much.

Cost of Degree, Educational Consulting, Graduation Rates, Understanding the Market

Avoiding the College Closure Trap

If you’ve been following reporting on colleges and universities, you’ve probably noticed increasingly frequent reporting on small colleges closing down and sometimes on a few big ones. About a week ago, Michael Vasquez and Dan Bauman reported on data gathered by The Chronicle of Higher Education on college closings in “How America’s College-Closure Crisis Leaves Families Devastated.” The situation is so dire that “in the last five years, about half a million students have been displaced by college closures, which together shuttered more than 1,200 campuses.” That’s over 1200 campus closings displacing 500,000 students in the last five years alone. We have a crisis indeed. I’m going to explain here how you can spare yourself from the pains of a college shutdown by seeking out a little bit of information that isn’t that hard to find.

First, this data follows a pattern: for-profit colleges are largely the culprit. 88% of these shutdowns were of for-profit colleges, who account for 85% of all displaced students. So the first and most obvious thing to do is to avoid for-profit colleges. Their initial, large growth coincided with the rise of online education, which met a legitimate need: more students than you think have accessibility issues when it comes to attending college, either because of their own mobility or because of location, as not everyone has even a community college nearby. Furthermore, online education is attractive to working adults because of their busy schedules. Even if a college is nearby, sometimes it’s very difficult to make it to a scheduled class meeting. But the landscape of online education is changing now, and more and more state or otherwise non-profit institutions are getting into online education.

But why are for-profit colleges particularly at risk? To start, because they’re being run for profit. That means the owners of these institutions aren’t investing in endowment funds, which can protect the school from drops in enrollment and temporary budget shortfalls. And being run on a profit motive causes a host of other problems too. First, if the budget shortfall is bad enough, investors are far more willing to quickly cut and run to minimize losses. In some cases, the decision to close a for-profit university was made within a week, with no advance warning for students, and at times in the middle of a semester. These practices reveal that there’s little sense of obligation to students at many for-profit institutions, just an obligation to investors’ bottom line. Prospective college students, working adults, and military personnel should be wary of for-profit colleges because they’re vulnerable, and because they have some of the worst numbers for employability, retention, and graduation. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, “The 6-year graduation rate was 59 percent at public institutions, 66 percent at private nonprofit institutions, and 26 percent at private for-profit institutions.” For-profit colleges see students through to graduation at less than half the rate of their non-profit peers.

Furthermore, because the purpose of the institution is to generate profit for investors, faculty tend to be demoralized, underpaid, overworked, and lack any real say in how the institution is run: there’s very little in terms of shared governance. And it’s just going to get worse. By all indications, the Trump administration is loosening up oversight on the for-profit sector, so they will be able to engage in predatory admissions practices more easily than they did under the Obama administration.

So I’d like you to consider the following as major red flags when you’re considering a college of your choice:

  1. Low endowment
  2. Low faculty governance; mostly or completely untenured faculty (getting common everywhere, though)
  3. Low six-year graduation rate
  4. High acceptance rate (make an exception for community colleges, which are typically open enrollment by law)

And I’d like you to take one more step. While you can be sure that any for-profit college will fit all four of the above criteria, you should also know that many small, private non-profit colleges and universities do as well, especially small private colleges in rural areas. So wherever you apply, ask admissions officers the following questions:

  1. What percentage of your classes are taught by full time faculty? Don’t just ask what percentage of their faculty are full time. Those numbers can be fudged.
  2. What percentage of your full time faculty are tenured or tenure track?
  3. What percentage of your faculty have terminal degrees?
  4. What’s your six year graduation rate?
  5. What’s your endowment?

Of course you’ll want to know about sports, dorms, extracurriculars, and everything else, but college admissions officers who can’t answer the questions above probably don’t want to, and those are the questions that matter most to the quality of education at any given institution and to its long term stability. Most of this information is available online at a variety of sources, and services like Bright Futures Educational Consulting can provide unbiased, researched information about the best colleges and universities to attend for your major and your budget. Contact us if you’re unsure of your own research on these colleges and you’d like help navigating this minefield.


Avoiding Student Loan Debt, Cost of Degree, Educational Consulting, Majors and Areas of Study, Return on Investment

New Video Added

I’ve added a new video explaining our services and how they differ from other consulting services. We’re not just interested in college admissions, but in how college can help you attain the life that you want. We’re not just experienced in admissions, but in financial aid, instruction, course and curriculum design, and student advising. Watch the video to learn more.

Avoiding Student Loan Debt, Cost of Degree, Educational Consulting, Graduation Rates, Majors and Areas of Study, Return on Investment

Understanding Four vs. Six Year Graduation Rates

If you’ve been shopping for colleges you might have read about four and six year graduation rates. These rates are indicators of what percentage of entering freshmen finish college four years after starting and what percentage finish six years after starting. Graduation rates beyond six years aren’t followed very closely, as most students finish within six years or not at all, and from the numbers I’ve seen, five and six year graduation rates tend to be very similar.

Time-to-Graduation too Often Overlooked” by Beth Akers and Matthew M. Chingos addresses the issue of time to graduation as a significant concern for students considering a college. They are concerned about the added costs involved in graduating six years after starting rather than four. Akers and Chingos provide a lot of useful data indicating that four and six year graduation rates can vary widely among institutions regardless of the institution’s quality on other measures, including the strength of incoming students’ ACT or SAT scores. Apparently, there’s no clear correlation among student scores, institutional quality, and differences between four- and six-year graduation rates:

One might assume that general metrics of college quality are good proxies for all sorts of outcomes, including time-to-degree. For example, perhaps institutions with good six-year graduation rates also have good four-year graduation rates so it doesn’t really matter which one students use.  But it turns out that this is not the case.  The average time-to-degree varies widely, even within institutions that seem to be of similar quality based on other measures.

What I would like to do here is help students think through why graduation rates might differ from school to school and how to evaluate those differences.

First, I agree with the basic point of this article: students need to do all they can to graduate in four years, because by doing so they’re saving money. These cost savings take the form of not paying for two years of additional tuition, room, board, and fees, and also in the form of two fewer years of lost income. The sooner you start work after college, the sooner your investment in college starts paying you back.

But it’s very important that we understand the range of possible reasons for these differences. Time to graduation is always just a matter of basic math: any four-year college that requires 120 credit hours to graduate requires 30 credits per year, or 15 credits (typically five classes) per semester. If a student passes five classes per semester every semester they will graduate in four years, period. So if 15-20% of a college’s students need an additional two years to graduate that’s not because of the degree structure or the college itself, unless significantly more than 120 credits are required for graduation.

Typical reasons that cause students to take more than four years to graduate include:

1. Failing or dropping classes — do this four or five times and you’ve added a semester to your completion time.
2. Sports injuries, if they cause you to drop out of school for a semester or more.
3. Serious family issues or illnesses, if they cause you to drop out of school for a semester or more.
4. Switching majors during or after your third year.
5. Adding minors, especially multiple minors.
6. Double majors.

I have had students in the past who fit all of the above categories, often multiple ones at once.

Institutional reasons include for extended time to graduation include:

7. Credit-intensive majors. Typically, colleges can’t do much about these requirements, as they are field-specific and usually designed to meet state or federal requirements. For example, secondary education majors are often required to do coursework about equivalent to a double major. Those requirements are imposed by the state. Just know what you’re getting into if you select one of these majors.

8. The school doesn’t accept many or any transfer credits or students (i.e., most students start as freshmen), which raises the likelihood of more than four years to graduation. Transfer students will finish in two or three years, and if they graduate in four, they may have done it in four years at that institution but have taken much more than four years to get their degree.

9. Time to graduation may be increased if an institution has a significant population of non-traditional students, such as working adults. Working adults are often unable to attend full time so take longer to complete. My own alma mater, Rollins College, has an undergraduate evening program called the Hamilton Holt School that is largely populated by non-traditional students along with graduate programs with a similar student population. I suspect this school contributes to the 15% increase in six year graduation rates over four year graduation rates at Rollins College. I was one of these students. It took me nine years to complete my B.A. at three different institutions. I just happened to finish at Rollins College.

10. A college with a high population of remedial students will have longer time to graduation, as these courses often do not count for credit toward graduation. If a student has to take four remedial classes in two or three different subjects, that’s a semester added to their time to graduation. This problem may not be a negative if the college serves its remedial students well.

11. Are the college’s general education courses filled to overflowing? Do they offer too few sections for the students who need them? This problem is institutional and can extend time to graduation.

12. Does the college serve many veterans or those in the military? They often have to take a semester or more off for service. It’s a good thing that the college does so, but serving this population will affect a college’s stats on time to graduation.

So even if you see that there’s a big disconnect between four- and six-year graduation rates, you still don’t know what that means. If it’s because many students fail their classes, that means the school has meaningful academic standards but a weak student population, which is a mixed signal (bad in that students are weak, good in that at least the school has academic standards). If there’s a big difference between four- and six-year graduation rates because many students take credit-intensive majors or double majors, that’s a sign that the school has a high population of very motivated students, or very strong programs in credit-intensive majors, so that’s a good sign. Schools with a high four-year graduation rates may have low academic standards, and faculty may be pressured to just pass everyone through, in which case a high four-year graduation rate can be a sign of a bad school. If the school has an evening program populated by working adults, then differences in four- and six-year graduation rates don’t tell you anything at all.

So finding out why these differences exist is what matters. The best thing to do is to consider this measure alongside many others, and compare your potential college’s graduation rates to national averages and other potential colleges. If they’re above the national average for their cohort, you’re on safe ground.

In general, four-year private non-profit institutions have the best four- to six-year graduation rates, and for-profit institutions have the worst, running at about half the rate of public and private non-profit institutions.

Avoiding Student Loan Debt, Cost of Degree, Educational Consulting, Majors and Areas of Study, Return on Investment

How to Choose a College Major

 I’d like to encourage you to think about your choice of a college major in terms of three central questions:

  1. What are the emotional facets of your decision to choose a specific major?
  2. What are the professional facets of that decision?
  3. What are the economic facets of that decision?

Let’s explore these one at a time.

  1. The emotional content of your decision to pursue a major matters. While not every major will set you on a predetermined career path, your study still defines you and the doors that are either opened or closed for you in the future. Your choice of a major does not mean everything, but it still means a lot, so you want to spend some time thinking about who you are and what you really love before choosing a major. Engineers tend to be the highest paid graduates right out of college: are you that good at math? Do you love it? Are you really able to pursue a vocation that you don’t love just for the money it might make you?  Some people make this decision, find their happiness outside of work, and live fulfilling lives. Other people make expensive and time consuming mid-career shifts from jobs that they hate to courses of study that will lead them to jobs they love. What do you think you can live with? If it’s at all possible, pursue a course of study that you love. You will do better in it, and your skill sets and enthusiasm can open doors in skills-appropriate fields. If that course of study doesn’t lead to a clear career path, minor in something that does, like business or web development. It will make you easier to place in entry-level positions.
  2. The professional content of your decision to pursue a certain course of study should be considered as well. Some degree programs are essentially vocational schools: programs such as law, education, and engineering focus your education on one specific industry. You may be able to switch career paths down the road, but your skill sets will be fairly narrow and limiting. Liberal arts majors such as English, history, art, and philosophy, on the other hand, tend to be trainable across a wide range of fields and find success in many different industries, but they sometimes have a harder time getting initially placed because their degrees aren’t clearly associated with a job function. They have much better soft skills than the hordes of business majors and M.B.A. graduates produced every year, though, so they can distinguish themselves once employed. It’s usually smart to pair liberal arts degrees with something like programming or business minors to help employability right out of college. Remember that a degree does not get you a job. It only makes you eligible to apply for certain jobs, and different degrees make you eligible to apply for different kinds of jobs.
  3. The economic content of your decision to pursue a degree is related to the following factors:
    1. Cost of the degree.
    2. Income potential for the degree.
    3. Age to retirement (related to no. 2) — your income earning potential is limited to your age at graduation.So, obviously, the best financial decision in the degree seeking process, or the best return on your investment for the cost of your degree, is to pick a degree that is pursued cheaply and yields high pay as soon as possible. In the current market, that would be a degree in petroleum or chemical engineering with no debt at graduation. But probably 3-5% of all high school graduates have the math skills to be engineers of any kind, so what do the rest of us do? We try to avoid going into high debt for low paying careers, especially late in life when our income potential is limited. You can save a lot of money by starting in community college and then transferring to a state university, or at least starting at a state university. Keep in mind that the economic value of a course of study is not a measure of its inherent value: that is only a reflection of market conditions at the time, and they can vary. The highest paying fields right now would hit bottom if saturated with more graduates than available jobs. People aren’t paid what they are worth. They’re paid on a supply and demand basis. Pay is only driven up when employers have to compete with each other for employees. Pay bottoms out when graduates are a dime a dozen, and especially when there’s not a lot of money in the industry.

What I’ve just described are the three factors that you should consider when selecting a degree program at any level. However, I can’t tell you which of these are more important to you personally. If you’re independently wealthy and don’t have to worry about lost income or student loan debt in your pursuit of a degree, pursue what you love and forget about everything else. If you have to worry about debt, think about the other two. But no one can tell you how much each of these factors will weigh in your own decision making process. Be careful about using an emotional logic for financial decisions. That doesn’t usually turn out well. Be careful about being purely financially motivated as well, unless that’s who you are.

In other words, if you’re like most people, seek a balance between the three. Your ideal degree program at any level would be where your passions intersect with your best professional identity and your most viable financial position. Most of us have to make compromises, so be careful about compromising any one of these too much. If you’d like personalized advising that can help you think through these factors, consider retaining the services of Bright Futures Educational Consulting. We’re here to help, and we’re experienced at it.