As I am writing this, I am sitting in my dorm room reflecting on my first year of college at Northern Arizona University; in fact, I have only been here for six short weeks.
A little background on myself: I was raised in a middle class family; both my parents work full-time. We live in an affluent neighborhood in Southern California in a beautiful home, owning the newest technology and vacationing frequently. I attended public school from grammar through high school. But along with living a nice, middle class lifestyle, there are many educational expenses for which to account. Americans do not realize the financial burden placed on families and students to put someone or themselves through college. I have concluded I want answers to the following:
What is the average cost of four years in college?
Who is paying for one’s education?
How long does it take a student to pay off their educational debt?
Can you be successful without a higher education?
What percent of students do not pursue a higher education after high school?
As I, and many others, made the big decision back in my senior year of high school on what universities I would apply too, a lot of financial questions and decisions were discussed at the dinner table. Our discussions were centered on how we would pay for college, how much all four years would cost, if we were making the best financial decision for the family, and sadly, if it was worth it in the long run. This is the conversation millions of families will be having before committing to the next four years of their student’s education and will continue to be a recurring thought when receiving the billing statement each month. In my particular situation, thank goodness for the Western Exchange Program also known as WUE. I would not be attending NAU without this program. The Western Exchange Program is a program for out-of-state students who live throughout the Western United States and receive a reduced tuition rate. WUE tuition is more expensive than in-state tuition but less than paying for out-of-state tuition.
Books, meal plans, housing, not to mention the expenses to visit your student and send them home for holidays is not calculated into the overall price of college. You are suddenly paying for sports, clubs, and Greek life fees that were never taken into account prior to making your ultimate decision which was most likely centered around the universities’ tuition. This is one of the reasons why many students cannot get out from under their student debt. By the time they do, their children are starting college and they are trying to figure out how to pay for it while trying to stay afloat themselves. Believe me, now having paid almost $11,000 in college expenses for only three months of school and receiving a bill of a little under $1,000 for participation in Greek life, I have begun a search to find the answers to my pleading question, “Is it worth it to go into huge debt to achieve a higher education in the United States?” I am going to find these answers by countless hours of searching the web, reading articles and the most interesting facet, an interview with my father to gain his opinion on this matter. These answers are extremely important to me as I am sitting here in my first few months of my freshman year of college and in a blink of an eye my parents will have two high school graduates in college next year. This is an exciting but stressful time in one’s life as your savings account begins to plummet and your mind begins to wonder . . . Is it really worth every penny I am spending?
As I start my search, I become hesitant to type into the Google search bar. I am questioning myself what if I find and conclude it is not worth it to spend all this money on a college education, what will I do, how will I tell my parents? I close my eyes and take a deep breath. I then find the strength to type into the search bar, “What is the average cost of college for four years?” I start here because I need the basic information before heading into the big question. An average American spends between $50,000 to $68,000 per year in private school college expenses, $32,000 per year for out-of-state, $12,000 per year for in-state, and about $6,000 per year in community college. In four years, you can find yourself paying up to $334,000 for a college degree (Troy Onink 1). This is a staggering amount for only one child. How can families afford multiple children? College is a huge investment and is only going to get more expensive as the demand continues to increase. These amounts above cover only the basic college expenses like books, meal plans, tuition, and on-campus housing. Families have to account for seasonal clothing, items to furnish a dorm/apartment, and so much more. Because of this, many students are relying on financial aid, scholarships, and loans to help cover cost.
After finding out the stifling amount student’s pay to attend a four-year university to attain a degree, I find myself asking who is paying the bill of almost $334,000 for four years. I typed into Google, who is paying for one’s college education. I stumbled upon an article from The New York Times, “Who Should Pay for Higher Education?” by Howard Cohen. I started reading and became intrigued with what he had to say. Twenty years ago, state government paid about two-thirds of college tuition. States have now prioritized public K-12 education, medical care, endless social program, and so much more that they can no longer help cover college tuition (Howard Cohen 1). It has become more and more common for the student to pay their way through college by working, financial aid, grants, scholarships, and student loans. For multiple reasons, parents simply cannot afford to finance their student through college. Parents believe their student will perform better in school when they shoulder the financial burden. Parents are convincing their children to obtain a college loan because they have several years to pay it off and older parents are trying to save for retirement and do not have the money to pay for college.
This brought me to my next search. I typed into Google how long does it take to pay off student debt. Hundreds of thousands of articles popped up. I chose the article, “Student Loan Expectations: Myth vs. Reality”, by the author Allie Bidwell who conducted a survey from two response groups. One group consisted of 500 current students from the ages of 18 to 24 and another group of 544 parents of current college students. The results showed current students are expected to have about $39,000 to $42,000 in student debt by the time they graduate and they are expected to pay off the debt as early as the age of 33 or as late as 21 years after graduating college (Allie Bidwell 1). Students struggle to pay off college debt for many years. There are about 40 million American’s with outstanding student debt. This is an astronomical amount of money.
Next, I went to the Cline Library database and typed in a very broad search—college debt. A striking title of an article by Min Zhan and Deirdre Lanesskog caught my eye, “The Impact of Family Assets and Debt on College Graduation”. Since 2010, students who have graduated with a college degree in the United States earned double the amount of income in comparison to students who only obtained a high school diploma. People who do not have a high school diploma earned one third the amount of income as college students (Min Zhan and Deirdre Lanesskog 1). Students often have higher pay checks, a variety of other benefits like better life skills, and most commonly have a stable quality of life. The U.S. Census Bureau released a report from the American Community Survey that people who had a bachelor’s degree were expected to earn a 40-year lifetime salary of about $2.4 million dollars, high school diplomas would earn about $1.4 million dollars, and master’s degrees earned about $2.8 million dollars (Tiffany Julian). A college education is the best investment for your personal career. It takes an extreme amount of time and money but it is the best thing you can do for yourself.
This now leads me to wanting to know what percent of students do not purse a higher education after high school. I eagerly click on a new tab; I type in my question to Google – how many students do not pursue a higher education after high school? I start reading an article by Alia Wong, titled “Where are all the High School Grads Going?” National Student Clearinghouse Research Center released numbers that college enrollment rates have significantly decreased. In 2016, the amount of students enrolling in college fell 1.7 percent. (Alia Wong). I believe this is because not all students have equal access to higher education. Many believe the cost of college is rising too fast and students are under prepared.
Lastly, before concluding this search, I interviewed my father, Scott Santmyer, a graduate from Cal State Fullerton, a respected business owner and father to my sister and me, on what he thinks about achieving a higher education and is it worth the money you spend to do so. While interviewing him, I learned what college means to him. He believes a college degree assures you a higher salary resulting over the course of a lifetime of a lot more money. Your education is what you put into it. Parents should try to pay as much as they can afford but students need to understand you have a lifetime to pay back a student loan and parents only have such little time to save for retirement. In some cases, going to community college for little expense then transferring to a State school is definitely saving families thousands of dollars. In the end, employers look at your work ethic over the school you graduate from. For example, Bill Gates, is one of the richest men alive. He is a college dropout who is an example to many that anything is possible with determination and a talented work ethic. College can add a lot to a resume but is certainly not everything nor the end all be all.
College is definitely beneficial, highly important and worth the investment as it is very hard to obtain a high paying job without a college education. Employers will select the individual who is degreed over those without. It is unfortunate students have to decide if it is really worth putting themselves in debt to earn a degree. College is in high demand and the cost is only increasing as the years and decades progress. I definitely made the right choice in pursuing a college education. I might have to relinquish some luxuries to afford my education, but it motivates me to achieve my goals. I would not be here today if it was not for my amazing parent’s work ethic and hard work they put into their jobs to provide me this opportunity.