Paying for college: How much does it cost you NOT to go?

The clock is counting down to the most exciting play that ever happens on a football field — the march of high school seniors moving down the field to receive their diplomas.

Once again, graduates will be reminded that commencement marks a beginning, not an end, to their lives that lie ahead.

For many graduates in Fayette County, the next step of going on to college will be a decision they made long ago, and they cannot imagine doing anything else.

That was the situation for me as I grew up. I was raised on a farm and my father had not graduated from college, yet there was a subtle expectation that my four brothers and I would go on to college.

But, for many approaching the end of their high school career, attending college will be a difficult decision as they weigh the cost of going to college with the benefits of taking a full-time job right away.

Some may choose to do both by enrolling in college part-time while also working to meet financial needs.

Soon-to-be high school graduates are not the only ones choosing whether or not to pursue a college degree. In Fayette County, about one-fourth of all adults have never attended college and an additional one-third of all adults have some college education but less than a 4-year degree.

Every semester presents another opportunity for these individuals to either enroll or return to college.

Questions arise: Is a college degree necessary and is it worth the financial costs in the long run?

Earning a four-year college degree is becoming increasingly important to stay competitive in the employment marketplace.

Since 1990, the percentage of Georgians holding at least a bachelor’s degree has increased by almost 50 percent, from 19 percent to 28 percent of all adults.

Those wishing to compete for the best jobs or a promotion at their current job need to distinguish themselves with a good education.

Fortunately for those deciding to go to college, Georgia has one of the most affordable public university systems in the country. With an average tuition and fee cost of $4,262 per year, Georgia is the seventh least expensive state in which to attend a four-year university. Add in the HOPE Scholarship, and higher education in Georgia is even more affordable.

Despite the relatively low tuition rate in Georgia, college is still a major financial investment.

At current expense levels, students will spend over $17,000 to complete a four-year degree. But calculating the actual cost of attending college can be much more complicated.

For those who choose to go to college full-time and not be employed, the lost income while attending college must be factored into the equation.

The interest accrued on student loans must also be considered for those who choose to finance their education over time.

Thus, the actual cost of a four-year degree can range anywhere from a low of $17,000 for those who work and pay as they go to a high of $190,000 for those who finance the cost of attending college full-time.

So, does this investment really pay off over time?

To answer this question, we need to compare the average income levels for those with a bachelor’s degree with those who have lower levels of education.

In 2005, the average income for someone with a bachelor’s degree was $55,000, compared to $29,000 for someone with no college education.

Those who have an associate’s degree were in between with an average income of about $38,000 per year.

Based on these earning differentials, it does not take long for someone to recoup the cost of a college degree.

One word of caution: The average incomes cited above cannot be taken as a guarantee of a salary right after graduation. There are variations by area of study since some fields pay better than others.

These averages are for all adults, including those who are established in their careers as well as those who are just getting started.

However, The College Board projects that over the course of a lifetime, someone with a bachelor’s degree earns $600,000 more than someone with a high school diploma and $330,000 more than someone with an associate’s degree.

So far, all of the data on college expenses has included only public universities. What about the cost of attending a private college?

For this past academic year, the average tuition at a private nonprofit university was $23,712.

When the cost of financing a college degree is factored in, The College Board estimates that it takes about seven years longer for someone to recoup the cost of attending a private college in comparison to attending a public university.

But income alone does not tell the whole story. Those who have a college degree are also more likely to receive health insurance and pension plans from their employers. College graduates also report higher levels of physical and emotional health and are more likely to have children who do well in school.

The community also receives benefits from having a higher percentage of college graduates. Higher education levels are associated with lower rates of unemployment and poverty and higher rates of civic involvement through volunteer work and political participation.

Those who have completed a bachelor’s degree may also want to consider going on to graduate school. In 2005, those with a master’s degree earned about 25 percent more than those with a bachelor’s degree.

Whenever I teach introduction to sociology, I always spend a day encouraging my students to consider graduate school. It is my belief that you don’t have to be a genius to go to graduate school.

The keys to success are self-discipline, strong reading and writing skills, and a determination to finish the program. If that describes you, then you are a candidate for graduate school.

The best part of any day I have at work is meeting someone who has just discovered our Fayette County site. Many say that they had always wanted to go back to school but driving to our main campus was difficult to do after a long day at work.

Others are excited to learn that we offer our complete MBA program here locally. Clayton State’s Master of Health Administration and Master of Science in Nursing offer many online courses and thus are readily available to Fayette County residents as well.

College is a big commitment. Next to buying a house, it is probably the biggest financial investment most people will ever make. But, apart from the financial return that most college graduates enjoy, there is the satisfaction that comes from accomplishing a goal and having the opportunity to pursue a chosen career.

So, this spring, new high school graduates are not the only ones who should be weighing their college decision.

[Dr. Kevin Demmitt is the assistant vice president for academic outreach for Clayton State University-Fayette.]

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muddle's picture
Submitted by muddle on Wed, 04/23/2008 - 12:19pm.

I do not wish to take anything away from Dr. Demmitt's blog. He makes a valid point in noting that a college or graduate degree can more than pay for itself because of the employment opportunities that are afforded to those with paper in hand.

But my guess is that 9 out of 10 students that I have in my classrooms arrive with precisely this aim in mind. Ask them, "Why are you in college?" They will reply, "Because I want to get a good job when I graduate." Yeah, yeah, OK.

But I think there is a better answer. I would like to hear more students say, simply, "Because I want to learn."

Our society has such a pragmatic, and, I suppose, materialistic bent that we assess the value of things with the cold, calculating eye of the economist. Here, the value of an education is cashed out in terms of its effectiveness as a means to the end of gainful employment, which, in turn, is often viewed as a means to the end of acquiring more "stuff."

I would like to see more impractical students who choose their major simply because they have fallen in love with the ideas that animate it. And I wish that more students who came my way understood how an education in the liberal arts is simply good for the soul.

I was already married and we had a young child when I decided to go back to school. I discovered philosophy--of all disciplines, perhaps the one most widely regarded as "impractical" (as in "Philosophy?! What can you possibly do with a degree like that?")--and it took me 14 years and several degrees to finish. By the time I came out the other end of the educational tunnel, we had four children in tow--some in their teens. All along, I was haunted by that practical question, "Will there be a job waiting when I get out?"

I had no such assurance.

All I knew was that this was the stuff for which I had been born, and I could not imagine spending my life doing anything other than spending my days thinking, and talking and writing about the most important, and, yes, practical ideas known to mortals.

The "Life is Good" company, with their "Jake" T-shirts, has a motto that is sewn onto all of its products: "Do what you love; Love what you do."

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