Writing Wednesday: The Cost of a College Education

Last week I was talking to some of my coworkers about where we went to college and the issue of the rising cost of education, private or public, in the U.S. came up.  Many of us went to relatively prestigious private schools (I myself went to Boston University, a tier two school) and we are now suffering the financial consequences of doing so.

I did not come from a wealthy family.  My parents were in no position to financially contribute to my education, regardless of where I went.  I knew this from the moment I began thinking about going to college.  At times I thought to myself that it would just be easier, and cheaper, to simply not go to college and just jump straight into the work world.  But my parents pushed for college, and honestly, I knew that without a college education I would be limited in what I could do in life.  So regardless of how much it was going to cost me, I was going.  Ultimately, however, I ended up going to one of the most expensive colleges in the United States.  Though it does not make it into the top 10 most expensive colleges to attend, for 2010-2011 undergraduate tuition only, Boston University costs $39,314.  On average room and board costs $12,260.  Add in books and other personal expenses and you are looking at nearly $55,000 for one year of education at Boston University.  Even though the average financial aid award is $35,000 (and give over 66% of students aid), which is great, this still leaves another $20,000 per year that a student needs to come up with, from their parents, or themselves.  For me, this meant that at the end of my undergraduate college eduction I was in debt $80,000.  My monthly loan payments are as low as they can go and they are still $600 per month.  And yes, I already consolidated.  I will be paying this off well into my 40s.  It is important to note that my indebtedness is not average, significantly higher than the average BU graduate at $31,000, and the average college student at $24,000 (in 2009, up 6% from 2008).  Even the average student debt works out to approximately $250 per month for 12 years in payments.

Now look, I don’t regret my time at BU.  I do feel it was worth it, 90% of the time, and my time there helped me grow as a person and get to where I am today.  However, education should never cost this much.  And to be honest, this hefty price tag deters many potential students from even thinking of college as an option, especially if their parents are unable to financially contribute.  I chose to ignore the cost, not everyone does.  So go to a state-funded college* instead, you say?  That was an option.  I could have gone to the University of Vermont, my home state school, for nearly free.  I was considered a “Vermont Scholar” which means nearly all of my tuition would have been covered.  All I would have been responsible for was my room and board, and honestly, I could have lived at home and drove the 50 miles each way with no problem.  But I wanted to get out of Vermont.  Though I love my home state, I knew I needed to go somewhere else.  I knew that UVM would not offer me the quality of education that I wanted.  I knew that if I had stayed in Vermont it would be likely that I would never get out.  And you know what, many kids feel the same way.  College is supposed to be a time when we get to go to new places, meet new people, have new experiences.  It’s hard to do this is the same state you grew up in.

When you compare the amount of debt you will be in after graduating to the amount you will get paid at your first job, you start to wonder if college was truly worth the cost.  Though it varies by region and field, according to a survey done in early 2010 by the National Association of College and Employers, the average starting salary of a 2010 college graduate was $47,673 (mine was significantly lower at $32,000, and in San Francisco, which has one of the highest costs of living).  And this is if you were lucky enough to get a job shortly after graduating, as survey showed that in 2009 the unemployment rate for graduates ages 20-24 was 8.7% (up from 5.8% the previous year). Yes, I know, the starting salary amount is significantly higher than a non-graduate, but non-college graduates do not have to pay between $300 and $1,500 a month in student loans (dependent upon debt amount and repayment plan).  And guess what, this is a bill you can’t avoid.  Even if you declare bankruptcy, student loans are not automatically included.  You have to prove that paying back student loans would put you in undue hardship.  And it is a hard thing to argue.  Additionally, many people do not want to declare bankruptcy, which will then haunt them for the next 7-10 years.

All the numbers I have presented are for those with a BA or BS.  When you start looking at the cost of other types of degrees and educations, Law School, PhD, Masters, Medical School, Veterinary School, the numbers start to sky rocket.  And nearly all of these programs require that you have a BA/BS first.  Even if you are lucky enough to make it through undergraduate school with no debt, it is 95% likely you will not make it through graduate school debt-free.

Some quick numbers to show what I mean about the average indebtedness of a the different types of graduate students (according to a recent survey):

  • PhD – $36,917*
  • Veterinary College – $105,573
  • Medical School – $139,517

Yes, these specialized degrees offer significantly higher paying starting salaries ($75,000 to $400,000), but there are many other expenses that will be encountered.  Rent or mortgage, food, car, utilities, medical.  And if you have a child, well there goes even more of your money.  Should someone who is going to be serving society in some of the most stressful jobs known have to pay this much?

So we know college is expensive here in the United States.  How do other countries compare?  First, let us look at Canada, home to some absolutely fantastic universities, on par with the “Ivy Leagues” here in the US.

World’s Best Universities: Canadian
– Please note that because the current CAD to USD exchange rate is 1 to 1.01, I am not going to convert to USD.

McGill University

  • Quebec Resident: $2,068
  • Canadian Resident: $5,668
  • International: $14,500 – $25,000 (dependent upon type of degree with Arts & Sciences the lowest cost)

University of Toronto

  • Domestic: $5,216
  • International: $23,478

Queen’s University

  • Domestic Resident $5,230
  • International: $18,730

Now let us look at England, home to some of the top (and oldest) universities in the world.  Many of these colleges rival the Ivy Leagues of the US for prestige.  Some even beat them.

World’s Best Universities: British

University of Cambridge*

  • Domestic: $5,265 (£3,375)
  • International: $16,775 (£10,752)

King’s College (London)

  • Domestic: $5,265 (£3,375)
  • International: $19,502 (£12,500)

University of Oxford

  • Domestic: $5,265 (£3,375)
  • International: $19,814 (£12,700)

So what does this tell us?  Simply put, education in America is prohibitively expensive.  Across the board in both Canada and England, tuition for top universities cost less than that of a state university here in the United States.  Furthermore, as an international student, you could get a top quality education at these universities for less than what you would pay for a private college here, and get the experience of living abroad.  Something is clearly being done properly with education, it’s just not here in the United States.  And that needs to change.

So how do we change this?  This is a tough one.  There have been groups campaigning for this for years, even decades.  And what have we seen?  The cost continues to rise.  The amount of debt continues to increase.  My best suggestion, continue to get the word out.  Write articles, contribute to movements, send letters to the government.  Simply keep persisting.  The truth of the matter is, it may never change, but we will never know if we do not keep trying.

*For reference the average tuition of a state university in the US is $7,605 per year for in-state and $11,900 for out-of-state. Source.
*Many PhD programs do offer scholarships, grants and will even pay you if you choose to be a Teacher’s Assistant (TA), keeping the cost of a PhD significantly lower.
*University of Cambridge is actually considered the top university in the world, according to a recent survey.  It is even ranked above both Harvard and Yale.  Source.
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