Avoiding Student Loan Debt, Cost of Degree, Graduation Rates, Learning, Majors and Areas of Study, Return on Investment, Understanding the Market

Revisiting “An Era of Neglect”

In 2014 the Chronicle of Higher Education ran a lengthy article about higher education funding titled “An Era of Neglect.” The number of candidates proposing reforms in higher education funding this election cycle has made student debt, education funding, and education costs hot topics again, so I think now is a good time to revisit these reports.

In short, between 2008 and 2014 economic downturns and private sector commitments to paying as few taxes as possible has led to cuts in state budgets. Rises in tuition costs during this period were exactly proportional in many cases to cuts in state budgets for education, and in order to drive up admissions, colleges are increasingly investing in sports and amenities rather than in qualified educators.

The result is that the business sector is getting what they’re paying for in the form of lesser-skilled college grads, the costs of college are being increasingly pushed onto the public in the form of debt, and a new debt crisis is looming as college graduates are increasingly unemployable or underemployed, making it difficult to repay these student loans.

While colleges and universities can be more responsible in their spending patterns, that by itself isn’t enough to reverse this situation.

You might think it’s smart to just skip college altogether, but with few exceptions, bad prospects for college grads mean worse ones for those without a college education.

The only winner in this situation is the financial sector, at the expense of taxpayers.

An Era of Neglect – Special Reports – The Chronicle of Higher Education.

Avoiding Student Loan Debt, Cost of Degree, Educational Consulting, Graduation Rates

A Few Thoughts about Free College

With the upcoming election cycle, a number of candidates have been discussing a variety of plans for financing college education, some of them being called “free college for all.” I hope at a later date to provide a comprehensive overview of each of the major candidates on education, but at present I would like to take a look at what candidates have been calling “free college.”

First, we have a real problem with student loan debt. Forbes very recently described it as a $1.5 trillion crisis. I know that student loan debt has been around a long time, but it’s ballooning, and students graduating now have a much higher debt to income ratio than students who graduated before 2008. The Forbes link above provides very good historic data about how students have been increasingly taking on higher student loan debt.

Some colleges are better than others, though. As you’ll see in the Forbes data, students graduating from public colleges have the lowest rate of student loan debt (66%), followed by students graduating from private non-profit colleges (75%). The most debt-burdened students are those who graduate from private for-profit colleges (88%), and dangerously, these students also have the lowest graduation rates. The amount of debt held follows the same pattern: those who attended public colleges hold the least debt while those who attend private for-profit colleges hold the most.

Next, 2008 is an important year. It’s the year that the biggest economic crash since the Great Depression hit worldwide. Massive unemployment caused a drop in state revenues, and a drop in state revenues created almost immediate, and very large, cuts in state support for education across the boards. State colleges and universities could only survive by massively increasing tuition, with immediately increased the student loan burden held by students attending these schools.

We should also understand that no one is really promoting “free college.” Bernie Sanders has a plan for “tuition-free” college, which is really taxpayer supported college, but even “tuition-free” college isn’t free college. Students still have to bear the costs of room and board, books, fees, travel, and incidentals, and at many public colleges and universities room and board can be equal to or even twice the cost of tuition. For example, at UCF this year tuition is about $6,300, while room, board, and books is just over $11,500. Sanders’s plan is a great improvement over our current system, but by itself it won’t solve our student loan debt crisis.

We should next take into account state funding. If the Fed stepping in just means that states will cut their funding, that move will cause more damage. As it is, the massive state cuts to higher education funding following the 2008 crash have had ongoing and long term negative effects on higher education. So while we need Federal programs that fund tuition apart from debt, we also need commitments imposed on states to maintain their funding. If the federal government covers tuition, state financial aid should then be redirected toward room, board, and books.

But can we even afford to pay for this? Yes we can — we’re actually very close to paying for it all already. It’s more a matter of how we allocate our current spending and finding a few additional sources of revenue, but that will be the topic of a future post. Taxpayer supported college education is the only viable model going forward, but the details of this plan matter.

I would like to leave you with the thought that we do indeed need to fund college societally. A college education is not a luxury item; college educated citizens are needed for the workforce, and everyone benefits from their presence, even those who never attend college. Without college graduates we would have no roads, infrastructure, buildings, utilities, internet, medical professionals (doctors, nurses, and technicians) — the list could go on. A college education is not a personal luxury, but a societal necessity, and we need to come together to help cover it. Massive debts just mean an inevitable crisis, and right now there is more student loan debt than credit card debt.

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, 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.