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.

Educational Consulting, Understanding the Market

Latest Scandals in College Admissions

If you’ve been following the news lately, you may have heard about the latest scandal in college admissions. Fifty people were recently charged by the District Attorney in Massachusetts for illegal activities intended to guarantee their children admission to a number of elite colleges around the country. Some of these activities included illicit aid in college entrance exams such as the SAT, while others included bribing college coaches to guarantee a spot on their college team.

I think this recent scandal deserves the attention it’s been getting, but I think some of the commentary has been misguided. I’m going to offer a few thoughts here to help us think through the anxieties revealed by these scandals and better ways to think about them.

First, college admission is indeed a very stressful time for both parents and prospective students. It does matter which college you attend. It’s not true that education is the same across the country, and you do want to attend the best college that you can. Colleges with higher endowments do provide better education, hire top faculty and actually provide them support, provide better networking opportunities, and provide better facilities and other opportunities.

However, it’s not true that you or your child needs to get into any one particular college to have a good future. It’s not even true that Ivy League colleges are necessarily the best colleges in the country for any given area of study — your state’s public college may have excellent programs geared towards yours or your child’s interests. While some educational paths are certainly better than others, there isn’t just one right educational path for you or your child. There are many ways to do it right.

Next, there’s nothing wrong with doing every legal thing you can to improve test scores to help you get into a better college. Take SAT test prep classes. Get tutors if you’re weak in some areas. Take the test multiple times if your first score isn’t your best one. Hire services like ours to advise you, and seek out advice from guidance counselors as well. But you don’t have to be rich to get this help. There are a lot of free and inexpensive aids out there. You just need to know how to find them.

Finally, I would like to take a moment to distinguish Bright Futures Educational Consulting from other services out there. We are priced to help working and middle class families find their best paths into college. It’s not just about getting in, but about avoiding debt, finding the right colleges and majors for you or your child, and knowing where to find the information you need about all the decisions you have to make when choosing a college or major.

You might notice that many other services like ours are staffed by former college admissions workers. Bright Futures Educational Consulting has background in college admissions, but also in financial aid, course and curriculum design, instruction, and college administration. We’re not just thinking about getting you in to college, but about what you want to do while you’re there, the kinds of decisions that you need to make to avoid high debt (such as how to avoid switching majors, which can be very costly and time consuming), how your personality, personal strengths, passions, and interests can translate into a meaningful degree, and how that degree can translate into a living. We’re not just thinking about admissions, in other words, but about making your college education work for you in your life after graduation.

Check out our Contact Page for more information. We provide a range of consulting services. You only have to pay for the ones you need, and your initial consultation is free.

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

Understanding ROI and Education Degrees

ROI, or “Return on Investment,” is a term that media outlets like Forbes have begun using to describe the value of a college degree. These outlets started using this term to encourage prospective college students and their parents to think seriously of college as a financial investment alongside all of our other considerations about college. The idea behind ROI is that the value of a college degree is determined in part by the cost of the degree against the earning potential of the degree. A degree that costs a lot of money with low earning potential, so the thinking goes, has a bad ROI and is a bad investment overall. 

This way of thinking is I think good for future college students overall, and here at Bright Futures Educational Consulting we emphasize ROI in our advising for degree choices. Unfortunately, despite the wealth of reporting about the value of various college degrees, very little of it is of much value. It either groups together significantly different degrees into deceptively large categories, or it fails to consider how limited are the numbers of people who can pursue specific degrees, or how demand for certain degrees might be short term. 

For example, much reporting on higher education talks about the “humanities” as a group. That’s a mistake of the first kind, lumping together a large number of disparate degrees to create a false impression. English MAs, for example, 24 years after graduation make only about $7000 a year less than MBAs, but the same can’t be said for art history majors. There’s no meaningful data about “humanities” unless you’re majoring in “humanities.” You need to look at the ROI for your specific area of the humanities. 

Other reporting touts degrees in chemical engineering as having the highest earning potential, but seems to ignore the fact that maybe 3% of high school graduates have the math skills to pursue a degree in chemical engineering — and that’s why the degrees lead to such high paying jobs. The market is not yet saturated. That’s not useful information for most high school graduates, but if you’re a math wiz, it might be. 

What I’d like to do is apply ROI thinking to a specific degree to show you how it works. One of the most popular degrees is education, and these degrees are lumped into “humanities and social science” by some reporting. Here’s what you need to know about a degree in K-12 education: 

  • First, a degree in K-12 education is a lot of work. In many states, an education degree is almost a double major, as you have to major in education and in a subject matter (at least if you’re pursing high school teaching). It’s very likely this degree will be expensive as it may take you more than four years to graduate. 
  • Next, it’s a tough field. Most K-12 educators quit teaching after five years. Our system isn’t geared to support teachers and, for that reason, isn’t really supporting students well either. Teachers across the country who want to serve their students feel very frustrated in their ability to do so. 
  • Finally, in most places, it’s a low paying field. Starting salaries for K-12 instructors with bachelor’s degrees range from the high $20s to the low $40s depending on the school district. 

Does this mean no one should go into K-12 education? If you think you’ll love teaching regardless of the challenges, then pursue that career, but I do think everyone who wants to teach needs to go in with eyes open. And, they need to prepare. My recommendations for anyone going into K-12 education, considering ROI, are as follows:

  • First, declare your education major your freshman year. That will cut your time to graduation by allowing you to better plan your classes across four years rather than just two or three. 
  • Next, avoid private colleges. While costs vary by state, most public universities are much cheaper than most private colleges, especially small private colleges. Since the ROI on a degree in K-12 education will be low, you want to avoid debt by keeping costs down.
  • Finally, ask the right questions. When you’re visiting a college and checking out their education programs, ask what percentage of students pass the Praxis test the first time and what percentage are placed in jobs before the end of their senior year. Here’s a good rule of thumb: if an admissions officer doesn’t know the answer to these questions, it may well be because the answers are bad. Get that information before you enroll, and if you can’t, go elsewhere. 

Did you find this information useful? Bright Futures Educational Consulting can provide you guidance on the return on investment for any degree that you might want to pursue and your best college and university options for that degree. Best of all, that information will be personalized for your specific state and circumstances. Contact us by phone or email for a free initial consultation. It’s a small investment now that can save you tens of thousands of dollars in student loan debt later.