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.

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.

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.

Educational Consulting, Majors and Areas of Study, Understanding the Market

Begin Your College Journey with Us

Thank you for your interest in Bright Futures Educational Consulting. Bright Futures Educational Consulting provides a full range of services for prospective and current college students, including transfer and graduate students, and for colleges, universities, and other higher educational professionals. Check out our Home Page for details about our services, and check out the Our Services page to understand how they work.

Good company in a journey makes the way seem shorter. — Izaak Walton

post

Bright Futures Educational Consulting is not affiliated with the Federal Department of Education or any college or university. Students who wish to file their federal financial aid forms may do so for free without the help of any third parties at https://studentaid.ed.gov/sa/fafsa. However, one of our consulting services is to provide guidance for students and parents who need assistance filling out complex financial aid forms, and we can also serve as a paid preparer on request.