The price of Education

A variety of subjects have been gathering like a snowball, the common threads being financing and higher education.

College is expensive, with tuition costs rising sharply in recent years, as much as a 77% increase in some states. The college board estimates the average yearly tuition for a four year private school at $29,000, public four year schools are estimated at $8,655 (. There must be some incredibly cheap schools out there, the private schools my step daughter has been looking at have all been over $45,000, our state university (Rutgers) is $13,499. That’s just tuition and fees, extras like books or living expenses can cross into five digit territory. On the other hand yearly expenses (total) at KU Leuven in Belgium runs about €9973, or $13,779.

One question I’m hearing for the first time in decades is “Is a college degree worth it?”, as the value of a degree suffers similarly to a currency based on wishful thinking, the expense of college is being weighed against the monetary impact of a degree in the job market. That Liberal Arts major is making the same minimum wage the High School dropout next to him is making at McDonald’s, despite the subtle nuances he applies while flipping burgers. Additionally, many art degrees are superfluous, there is more to be gained by practicing your art for four years than sitting in a classroom. One friend dropped out of college and started working off Broadway in his desired field of stage dressing. Two years in, he was earning more than college graduates (he was talented). Then he cut his hand in half while cutting scenery, and left the field entirely. He went back to school and got an MBA.

There are of course benefits that are measured in other ways than dollars, but as parents are asked for more dollars, less and less is being returned. More questions are being asked about what schools are doing with those dollars, but the answers are far from satisfying. It’s a sellers market, and if you really loved your kid you wouldn’t ask, would you? Well, maybe if you loved your kid enough to teach them something about economics.

One path for paying for college is scholarships, but the market is flooded and it’s not as easy as it once was. My second wife payed the majority of her tuition with scholarships, she spent most her senior year of High School hunting down and applying for scholarships and grants, some as small as $100. It all added up, and her student loan was only $10,000 after four years of private music schools. Not bad for a degree that landed her a job delivering singing telegrams upon graduation.

Sports scholarships are as trustworthy as a career in sports.  One friend in High School, an exceptional athlete who carried the school to a state championship, chose his college based on academics, he knew a career in sports was like chasing lightning. Today’s generation is raising the question of whether college athletes should be paid, and I’m not sure the answer is “no”. Big athletic schools rake in millions from sports, as does the surrounding community. Student athletes at such schools are athletes first, students second, so maybe they should have their risks covered in the same fashion as professional athletes (or maybe they should just drop the charade of being students altogether). The highest paid public employee in the state of New Jersey is the basketball coach at Rutgers.  The issue surely needs to be addressed, if an athlete is injured and can no longer play, he loses his future along with his scholarship, and while student athletes represent a fraction of students, the issues of college athletic programs muddy the financial field of all parties involved. My personal preference is to abolish college sports altogether, and focus on academics, but that will never be a popular idea.

You might think paying a premium tuition results in a premium education by tenured professors, but such is not the case. Adjuncts and teacher assistants are carrying the workload in most schools. When my sister in law was a grad student, she spent as much time teaching students who were only a few years behind her in their studies as she spent on her studies. This certainly affected the quality of the education she was paying for, but in this instance I believe her students got more than they paid for. In some community colleges, adjuncts teach two thirds of the classes, and across the board there are no figures for teaching assistants who are simply unpaid student teachers. In my sister in law’s case, she was working on a doctorate in biochemistry, not teaching, so the fact she is a natural instructor worked to her students’ benefit. To expect students to perform well as teachers is unrealistic in the overwhelming majority of situations, if it wasn’t, there would be no need for degrees in education or teaching certificates.

So we work our way through the expense of going to college and the value of the education received, and find ourselves looking at career value again. How do we expect our kids to pay off their student loans? The point of the education is to enrich the mind and soul of the student, but many people choose a career path based on expected income. Are there jobs available for which the education provides a benefit?

As I mentioned earlier, a career based in professional sports is a long shot. So are performing arts, not everyone delivering singing telegrams is an operatically trained vocalist, there just aren’t that many jobs for musicians and actors, or for that matter writers or production engineers. Despite laws addressing internships, we are at a point in our economy when well educated people will grasp at whatever straw is offered. Internships may provide valuable experience, or they may teach the intern how to make coffee just like her manager likes it. An internship may result in a permanent position, but probably not at the firm where you were an intern. An internship will never help pay off a student loan. Being an intern is in most cases one point five steps above slavery, without the glamorous fighting of lions.

The price of education is not the same as its cost or value, and all three need to be reevaluated on a case by case basis.