Education: The Cost and the Rewards

It seems to me…

It makes no difference how low tuition is if the student has no source of funds to pay that tuition.” ~ James E. Rogers.

Completing a college degree has become increasingly important and that importance will only continue to increase in the future. While I prefer not to overload anyone with statistics, sometimes it is necessary to make a point. I also should be clear that averages are just that – averages – and will be different for everyone.

The percentage of people in the U.S. who believe a college education is important increased from only 35 percent in 1978, to 65 percent in 1985, to 70 percent today[i]. While 57 percent of Americans do not believe higher education provides sufficient value; 86 percent of college graduates say it was a good investment[ii].

Increased lifetime earning potential only partly justifies that trend. Those with only a high school degree are three times more likely to live in poverty than college graduates and eight times more likely to depend on public assistance programs.

In 2008, about 60 percent of people who had attended college – whether or not they’d completed a degree – reported that they were very satisfied with their jobs. Only 50 percent of high school graduates and 40 percent of high school dropouts could say the same. People expressing job satisfaction were three times as likely to say that they were personally very happy.

Starting at a community college lowers a student’s odds of ever earning a bachelor’s degree. According to the advocacy organization Complete College America, only 4 percent of community college students complete an associate’s degree within two years; 36 percent of students at public universities earn a bachelor’s degree in four. The National Student Clearinghouse reports that 60 percent of community college and more than 40 percent of university students are still flailing toward those credentials after even six years.

Among the reasons: Students right out of highly regimented high schools find themselves lost in college, need academic help but don’t know where to find it or are hesitant to ask, or work so many hours to afford tuition and life expenses such as gas and rent that they crawl through their required coursework.

Fewer than half of community college students attend full-time. Of those who are in school full-time, 20 percent have full-time jobs and 40 percent have part-time jobs according to the American Association of Community Colleges.

Many students consider community colleges as inferior to four-year colleges. A majority of lower-income students attend less-selective colleges than they’re qualified to attend putting them at a disadvantage since high achievers are more likely to earn degrees if their classmates are also high achievers. If more middle-class students choose community colleges, it could create an environment where would states increase funding since with a more diverse group of students, community colleges could gain political capital and the funding that goes with it.

In an increasing number of countries, college tuition is now free not only for that country’s citizens but also for foreign students. Fifty years ago, many U.S. public universities also were tuition-free and it was possible to earn enough to pay all college-related expenses; something no long possible for students attending U.S. colleges today. Now a university education is unaffordable for many from working class families and many students leave school deeply in debt. Students who received their degrees in 2013 will need an average of 10 years to recoup the cost of their education compared to 23 years for those in 1980[iii].

In the early 1980s, Americans with a four-year college degree made 64 percent more per hour on average than those without a degree. Today, that number has increased to 98 percent[iv] — and the high-school graduate is much less likely to even find work.

Even the cost of college textbooks has increased and now average about $1200 per year[v].

No one should select their college major based on average starting salaries for recent college graduates. It might, however, be a consideration for anyone interested in pursuing a career in a STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) related area trying to decide in what undergraduate program they would like to major. Several studies are published every year and each uses slightly different evaluation criteria. Best choice for the top starting salaries for graduates are[vi]: petroleum engineer ($103,000), chemical engineering ($68,200), nuclear engineering ($67,600), computer engineering ($65,300), electrical engineering ($64,300), aerospace engineering ($62,800), mechanical engineering ($60,900), computer science ($59,800), actuarial mathematics ($58,7000), and physics ($53,100).

Correspondingly, undergraduate majors with the worst starting salaries were[vii]: elementary education ($33,000), social work ($33,400), music ($34,000), theology ($34,800), drama ($35,600), hospitality and tourism ($35,800), education ($36,200), horticulture ($37,200), Spanish ($37,200), and art ($37,600). Other factors to consider are that employment opportunities are not as plentiful and that promotion or compensation increases in those majors are not as rapid as for graduates in STEM majors where the typical student receives a 65 percent pay increase in the first five years after earning their bachelor’s degree.

Debt burdens vary considerably by major. In the sixth year following graduation, typical drama, music, religion and anthropology majors are still devoting more than 10 percent of their earnings to loan repayment while engineering and science majors are paying 6 percent or less[viii]. Degree field also is associated with college loan default rates (though several other factors including failure to complete the academic program are stronger predictors of default among all types of students). A college major in a science or engineering discipline lowers the default probability by over 4 percent among two-year, four-year, and university borrowers.

Everyone should do what most appeals to them. Liberal arts graduates are just as necessary as STEM graduates but for anyone not sure of what field in which they would like to major, they should make that decision fully informed of what to expect following receiving their degree.

That’s what I think, what about you?

[i] Pew Research Center.

[ii] Pew Research Center.

[iii] Federal Reserve Bank of New York.

[iv] U.S. Labor Department of Statistics.

[v] Sallie Mae/IPSOS Annual Report.

[vi] 2013-2014 PayScale College Salary Report, PayScale,

[vii] Purdy, Charles. Worst-Paying College Degrees, Monster,

[viii] Leonhardt, David. Student Debt: A Calculator Focused on College Majors, The New York Times,, 20 November 2014.


About lewbornmann

Lewis J. Bornmann has his doctorate in Computer Science. He became a volunteer for the American Red Cross following his retirement from teaching Computer Science, Mathematics, and Information Systems, at Mesa State College in Grand Junction, CO. He previously was on the staff at the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus, Stanford University, and several other universities. Dr. Bornmann has provided emergency assistance in areas devastated by hurricanes, floods, and wildfires. He has responded to emergencies on local Disaster Action Teams (DAT), assisted with Services to Armed Forces (SAF), and taught Disaster Services classes and Health & Safety classes. He and his wife, Barb, are certified operators of the American Red Cross Emergency Communications Response Vehicle (ECRV), a self-contained unit capable of providing satellite-based communications and technology-related assistance at disaster sites. He served on the governing board of a large international professional organization (ACM), was chair of a committee overseeing several hundred worldwide volunteer chapters, helped organize large international conferences, served on numerous technical committees, and presented technical papers at numerous symposiums and conferences. He has numerous Who’s Who citations for his technical and professional contributions and many years of management experience with major corporations including General Electric, Boeing, and as an independent contractor. He was a principal contributor on numerous large technology-related development projects, including having written the Systems Concepts for NASA’s largest supercomputing system at the Ames Research Center in Silicon Valley. With over 40 years of experience in scientific and commercial computer systems management and development, he worked on a wide variety of computer-related systems from small single embedded microprocessor based applications to some of the largest distributed heterogeneous supercomputing systems ever planned.
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