“Is College Worth It?”

“Skipping college is not the best path to success.”

During my 40 years in higher education, there is one constant: candidates running for various offices who regularly shed more heat than light on post-secondary education issues.  This presidential election cycle is no different, with much rhetoric, some toxic, and very few realistic and scalable solutions offered.

As a New York Times headline put it, “Is College Worth It? Clearly, New Data Say.” The article cites an analysis by the Economic Policy Institute of Labor Department statistics and notes, “Americans with four-year college degrees made 98 percent more an hour on average in 2013 than people without a degree. That’s up from 89 percent five years earlier, 85 percent a decade earlier and 64 percent in the early 1980s.”

The article goes on to reference MIT economist David Auter’s research that was published in the journal Science, noting, “…the true cost of a college degree is about negative $500,000. That’s right: Over the long run, college is cheaper than free. Not going to college will cost you about half a million dollars.”

Pew Research weighed in on this as well. Its findings: millennial college graduates (ages 25-32) are more likely to be employed full time and significantly less likely to be unemployed than those who are less educated. Also, millennial college grads who are working full time earn about $17,500 more per year than those with only a high school diploma.

Our presidential candidates should be zeroing in on how to bring greater rigor to elementary and secondary education so that students are better prepared for college and less likely to drop out once enrolled. Additionally, ill-prepared students often must take remedial courses, which are a cost driver for financially challenged students.

Exiting college before completing a degree is both painful emotionally and financially. Candidates should reinforce with college-bound students – those entering for the first time or those returning after having been in the work force for a period of time – the importance of securing a diploma. A college degree is critical to their earning power and their ability to better adapt to changing workforce needs, plus a more educated nation buttresses our competitive advantage.

There are many affordable avenues students who are seeking degrees can take. These include initially attending community colleges, studying at an in-state university, exploring competency based programs and working with financial aid officers at institutions such as Hollins to identify the best package available to finance a degree. Rarely does a student pay full tuition or what is commonly referred to as “sticker price.”

In a piece I wrote for the Washington Post last year I made clear one thing a President and his/her Administration should do and that is overhaul financial aid. Start with dramatically changing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid or FAFSA. It may be free, but it’s complicated, cumbersome, mind-numbing and truly daunting to the vast majority of students and parents who are not accountants.

At Hollins, which I have led for the past 11 years, we are careful stewards of our financial resources so that we can offer young women high quality and affordable educations. More than 90 percent of our students receive some sort of financial assistance, and the average need-based scholarship and grant award for full-time undergraduate students is $28,509. And I know colleges and universities across the country work to offer comparable aid packages, plus work to be fiscally responsible and do more with less.

Rhetoric is cheap as is bashing higher education. How refreshing it would be for candidates to state we need to have a better educated America, one prepared for global interaction and economic engagement. Our Founding Fathers were not afraid of learning and we’re the fortunate beneficiaries of their collective mind power. Now had women been at the table two hundred plus years ago…

This article was originally published on LinkedIn.
Nancy Gray
About the author: 

Since, 2005, Nancy Gray has served as President of Hollins University, a women’s college in Roanoke, VA.   Ms. Gray has more than 35 years of expertise in higher education leadership, having served as President of Converse College for five and a half years before her current role as President at Hollins.  Nancy is a graduate of Vanderbilt University, and holds a Master of Education degree from North Texas State University. Follow her on LinkedIn.