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Cost vs. Value in Higher Education


Is college worth it? We keep returning to this question as educators, administrators, parents, and students, yet there’s no definitive answer. And there are more options than ever, from certificates and open education opportunities to on-campus, online, and hybrid programs offered by a variety of institutions. Trying to make the necessary comparisons when choosing a program is challenging to say the least, but in today’s economic climate, many decisions are based primarily on cost.

Last week’s Future of Higher Education (#masonfuture) conference at George Mason University was active on Twitter and I saw several messages go by in my stream emphasizing the differences between cost and value. These terms are often used synonymously, but a closer examination may be helpful to those making decisions about higher education.

Calculating Costs

Increased student debt and the inability of college graduates to find employment in their fields of study are widely reported. Future students need to make sure they understand the financial realities of college attendance, repayment of loans, and starting salaries before enrolling.

The cost of higher education is largely a mathematical calculation involving what institutions charge (i.e., tuition, fees), often referred to as “sticker price”, minus financial assistance available (i.e., loans, grants, scholarships), resulting in “net price.” According to a recent article on WashingtonPost.com, “college is an outstanding investment, with an annual rate of return many times that of stocks and bonds. But if you pay the sticker price, it’s getting worse.

The distinction between sticker price and net price is an important one, and institutions and educational organizations provide information about the costs of attendance in various ways online:

  • Net Price Calculators: Required of institutions receiving Title IV federal student aid, these online tools help prospective students estimate the cost of attendance. Many schools make these available, (take a look at an example from SUNY) but there is some controversy about how well these calculators work and how much detail each school provides.
  • Trends in College Pricing Report: Published by The College Board, this resource includes more details about net price calculations along with information about institutional finances and enrollment.
  • StudentAid.gov: From the U.S. Department of Education, this site provides details about the federal student aid program and additional guidance on calculating the cost of attendance.

College costs can include a variety of expenses that aren’t always taken into consideration by online checklists, such as living expenses and textbooks. For adult students who have families, attending school may mean child care costs and time off from work. Online students have additional hardware, software, and Internet access costs. A student’s net price for a program may also factor in tax credits or other types of deductions.

Value Variables

The worth of higher education is harder to measure and involves more than just numbers and dollar amounts. Geoffrey Cox, president of Alliant International University, reminds us that “the value of an education is partly what it costs, but also what it delivers.” Choosing to pursue a college-level program, and selecting that program from among many options, means looking at not only the financial requirements, but also how the experience and resulting degree help meet the needs of the individual student:

  • Academic Quality: There are multiple ongoing initiatives seeking to determine the components of a high-quality education. Accreditation, student support services, and faculty credentials are just a few areas that impact value in terms of learning achievement and retention.
  • Career Preparation: As more students enter college with career goals in mind, the value of a program may be tied to the demand for graduates in the field of study, the availability of job placement services, and the strength of alumni networks, among other employment-related concerns.
  • Interests, Availability, Accessibility: From the learning environment to the topics covered, part of the value of higher education is in its ability to fulfill the learner’s interests in a way that is accessible and meaningful in his or her context, and to promote learning and intellectual development.

Jason Boyers from Harrison College suggests “the key to really understanding and evaluating an education’s worth is looking at its value over a lifetime.” Benefits include future earnings potential as well as the fact “that it makes lasting changes in the lives of those who seek it. Education changes people’s stories…”

While the cost of a particular program may be the same for most students, the value of the program may be different for each learner. There’s equal importance in both financial planning and goal setting when making decisions about college and it’s up to the individual to set his or her priorities and research the possibilities.

What are your thoughts on determining costs and value in higher education? What’s important to you?

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November 6th, 2012 written by (learn more about our authors)

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