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Cost takes the shine off college education

New data released last month supports the findings of the Pew Charitable Trusts when it comes to the perceived value of a college education. The survey included responses from 2,000 college and high school students and their parents.

The findings, collected and analyzed by GradGuard, a tuition insurance provider, show that overall, parents and students are less confident in the value of a college education; in their ability to pay for college; whether a college degree is a good financial investment; and the extent to which a college education is necessary for professional success.

The College Confidence score, which is the measure of the factors I just listed, is currently at 46.1. High school students showed the most confidence in post-secondary education, with a score of 48.4. Current college respondents, however, showed the least confidence in a college degree’s ability to make their lives better.

From the survey results, eight out of ten college students are at least somewhat confident that their college degree will lead to a financial windfall of sorts. While only 24% of current college students were extremely confident that their future earnings would recoup the cost of attendance, 17% of students said they were not too confident or not at all confident that going to school was the right decision for them. Affecting their value judgment might have been the fact that 28% of college students said they had little or no confidence that they had enough money to complete their college degree.

Nearly half of community college students and nearly 40% of four-year college students said they’ve considered “stopping out.” Minority students were more likely than their white counterparts to say that a college degree was important for success.

College education cost worries incoming students

The chief concern among high school students was the cost of a college education. More than one-third of high school respondents said they were not very confident or not at all confident that they could completely fund a college degree program. Despite their lack of cash, ninety percent, however, reported being at least somewhat confident that they could finish a four year degree in four years. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the average completion time for a four-year degree is 52 months – about one semester more than expected.

That one semester turns out to be very important; five out of six college students said they could not afford an additional semester of college costs. That particular question assumed that the student needed to withdraw from school for a semester for an unanticipated reason. That type of withdrawal is key – in most cases, students don’t receive any kind of refund when they withdraw. Not only do they lose the time toward degree completion, but they also lose a significant portion of their degree financing. Having to “replace” the money to complete a semester would potentially derail a large number of students.

The survey reveals a few salient points: first, students at all levels are worried about college education costs. As they get deeper into their degrees, they become less confident that they’re making the right financial and professional moves.

Second, large percentages of them have considered leaving college. Nearly half of community college students have said (at least to themselves), “What if…?”

Community colleges need recovery strategies.

Retention strategies need to address the reasons that community college students consider leaving. College administrators also need to develop a clear “on-ramp” to allow students who have left to return to school. Recovery strategies could include helping students replace the funds they lost by withdrawing in the middle of a semester. Removing the financial penalty of stopping out may allow students to get back to a degree they might otherwise leave behind.

Stopping out doesn’t just affect community college students, either. Nearly four in ten bachelor’s degree candidates have said that they have thought about disenrolling. The community college has a role here, too. For students who withdrew for academic reasons, a partnership between the universities and the community college to help recover these students could be very useful. Students who withdraw fall behind on their studies, and they may also lose financial aid eligibility. By helping them recover from an academic failure, community colleges can play an important role in building an educated workforce.

The survey’s focus on college costs is also a warning to community college trustees who want to push more of the cost of a college education onto the students. This would be acceptable if the Trustees practiced a high degree of austerity, but they do not. Seemingly, the Trustees want to push the cost of education off on students so they can spend more of the public’s money on frivolous things.

College students are at a financial breaking point. Continually referring the bill for unwise spending to them is the best way to empty out your classrooms.

Photo Credit: US Department of Education , via Flickr