The cost of attending college in the United States has drastically increased over the past thirty years; at the same time, the economic environment has fundamentally changed. Reexamining the collegiate landscape triggers a number of questions. Are college degrees necessary? If so, what do the costs look like? What are options the average student has to pay for college? In this article, we examine these questions in an attempt to gain a better understanding of the economic situation surrounding college degrees. Is it necessary?Today’s bachelor’s degree is like yesterday’s high school diploma; it is quickly becoming a dividing line between being those who are able to earn a living wage and those who struggle to do so. Workers who have a bachelor’s degree typically earn 66 percent more than those who have only earned a high school diploma. Over the course of a lifetime, the average graduate with a bachelor’s degree will earn approximately $1 million more than someone who does not have a postsecondary education. It is estimated that, by 2020, nearly two-thirds of job openings in the United States will require postsecondary education or training. Workers with degrees often tend to weather periods of economic recession more easily.; Iin 2016, the unemployment rate was 4 percent; but, when that statistic is subdivided into educational levels, the unemployment rate was 5.2 percent for high school graduates but only 2.7 percent for college graduates. A college degree often helps to make life less stressful; according to a 2015 report by the Pew Research Center, the divorce rate for high school graduates is 43 percent, while that same statistic for college graduates decreases to 26 percent. AccessNot only is a college degree a barrier by virtue of its completion, it is often access to higher education that can be the defining obstacle in a lifetime occupation. Although 77 percent of students from the top income quartile in America graduate with a bachelor’s degree by age 24, only 9 percent of students from the lowest income quartile accomplish the same. CostAccording to the US Department of Education, tuition at public, four-year colleges has more than doubled over the past thirty years, even after adjusting for inflation. A recent survey of the costs of attending college showed that a moderate college budget for an in-state public college during the 2017-2018 academic year averaged $25,290, while the costs for attending a moderately-priced private college was double that at $50,900. Unfortunately, the ability of the typical student to pay these fees has not kept pace; between 1992 and 2012, the average amount of student loans owed by a normal student borrower has more than doubled to a total of nearly $27,000, just for graduating with a bachelor’s degree.CompletionOne of the major things to consider is not college entrance, but rather college completion. Over the past thirty years, much of the focus of opening up higher education for lower-income individuals has been on access and acceptance into a university. By and large, that is not the primary concern any longer. The focus of that has shifted to ensuring that as many individuals as possible complete a degree. Unfortunately, only 19 percent of students at most public four-year universities complete a degree on-time, and at two-year institutions that decreases to only 5 percent of full-time students earning who earn an associate’s degree in two years. In fact, only 50 out of 580 public four-year institutions nationwide graduate a majority of their full-time students on time. Worse than not completing a degree on-time is not completing a degree at all; this has negative effects for not only the borrower, but also for society as a whole since because many of these student loans are backed by the federal government. Individuals who take out student loans but do not complete a degree or certificate are three times more likely to default on their loans than graduates; in fact, the amount of debt taken on is less of an indicator of default than is whether or not a borrower graduates.FundingThe federal government has engaged in a number of programs to make a college degree more accessible and more affordable. In 2010, Congress ended student loan subsidies for private banks through the use of Pell Grants, creating more than $60 billion in savings for students and taxpayers.Over the last ten years, the maximum Pell Grant has been increased by more than $1,000. More importantly, for the first time, it is now tied to inflation. During this time period, the number of Pell Grant recipients has expanded by more than one-third.FutureIn an attempt to address college access, President Obama began his America’s College Promise initiative, which would make two years of community college free for many students and enable hundreds of thousands to earn the first half of a bachelor’s degree at no cost. Once enacted, this would provide more than $61 billion in postsecondary funding over the next ten years. While this program has not yet been fully realized, it is certainly one avenue towards decreasing the overall cost of a college degree for many students. Expanded gainful employment regulations hold colleges and universities to higher standards for not only higher graduation rates, but also for ensuring that the degrees that are awarded are actually worthwhile.For many graduates and former students who are struggling under the weight of student loans, a number of income-driven repayment plans are available. These plans set payments according to someone’s ability to pay, which decreases the likelihood of default by meeting a graduate where he or she is, rather than a cookie-cutter approach to where they ought to be. The chart below outlines the various types of plans available.These plans change the timeline of debt repayment; the chart below outlines what this may look like for the average student:While not a panacea, these efforts are certainly aimed in the right direction. ConclusionAs America’s economy has transformed over the last thirty years, a postsecondary degree has become more and more necessary. There are a number of barriers to completing a degree, not the least of which are the consistently rising costs of attending college. While the federal government has engaged in a number of initiatives and partnerships with both states and institutions of higher learning, more is needed to ferret out worthless for-profit institutions with meritless degrees; to encourage higher rates of not only admission, but graduation; and to provide better ways for students to fund the cost of pursuing an education.
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