There are many factors to consider when picking where to go to college and how to pay for it, but it’s hard to escape the most central: how is it going to impact my financial future? While students value harder to quantify aspects of the college experience, such as broadening horizons or building networks, the vast majority of students are looking for a college education that will lead to a good job. In fact, at least 90 percent of students cite better employment or pay as their primary motivators for going to college.
Over the course of the past two years, we’ve talked to students across the country about what information they want to know and how they want that information presented. We’ve compiled their perspectives in the Student Agenda for Postsecondary Data Reform. Already, groups representing over one million students have signed on.
But obtaining a degree today is expensive. Since the the Recession, tuition and fees at both 4-year and 2-year institutions rose 28 percent, and now students typically graduate with nearly $30,000 in debt. The stakes are high, especially for students from low income or first-generation students, who often face the greatest barriers in accessing higher education.
But while we know how important getting a degree is (on average), the system isn’t transparent and doesn’t make it easy to know what the return on your investment will be. Right now, we can’t answer basic questions about colleges and their outcomes, like which schools or programs lead to different types of jobs for different types of students.
Read our series of student-authored stories showcasing the different perspectives on the need for more information when deciding where to go to school and what to study.
Ellen Griffin: “Empower Students to Better Assess School Quality”
Bridget Little: “What You Don’t Know Will Hurt You: A Lack of College Program Data Can Land Students in Deep Debt”
Thien Chau: “Why First Generation Students Need Data”
To say my educational journey has been a rocky road is an understatement. That journey–which included four institutions and a subsequent trail of debt–could have been much easier if I had more information about my schools and their programs. I didn’t have the best guidance growing up–I lived on my own since I was 15 and didn’t graduate from high school. When I turned 18, I knew I didn’t want a career in customer service, so at the recommendation of a family member I started classes at (the now notoriously defunct) Lamson Jr. College towards a certificate in word processing. Had I known how many Lamson students in the word processing program found relevant work after graduation, I may have changed my very expensive decision to attend. While every student doesn’t receive advice from college-educated parents and mentors, all prospective college students deserve access to success rates of school programs.
There were several red flags that I only discovered once I was enrolled. Lamson, a for-profit school which was located in my local shopping mall, accepted me without a GED. Of course, I was promised I would earn my GED, but was never offered classes to help me achieve this goal. I was also assured that a word processing certificate would put me on the path to a well-paying administrative career, but the school never offered career preparedness services. Three quarters of the way through my program, I was involved in a car accident, which caused me to spend nearly a year recovering from my injuries. Although I had to drop out of school, I was determined to complete my education.
I took another risk 20 years later and attended a community college where, given the quality of my last school, none of my credits transferred. I brought my prior loans out of default, paid my first semester out of pocket, and finally earned my GED. I went to school part-time to make up for the damage from Lamson, and I worked full-time.
When I was ready to transfer to a university, I was offered two different scholarships. One was to a state university and one was to a small private university. With the limited knowledge I had on graduation rates and career success from each institution, I chose the private university’s scholarship for the school’s prestige. While it did not cover my full tuition, I felt more comfortable at a smaller campus with advisors and administrators who would help me through the transition. It had an impressive graduation rate overall, but I had no access to how my particular program performed or if graduates were able to obtain jobs in their field, but this information is not available for any college or university. Fortunately, that institution was not the same predatory school that Lamson was. Nevertheless, I was cautious about my chances of finding work after graduation. I was an English major–a significant step upwards from word processing–and received overwhelming support from my professors. I was told that I would find plenty of job opportunities, but never saw stats released on the program’s success.
Financially, I struggled. I borrowed additional money that wasn’t covered by scholarships and Pell Grants. Things went from bad to worse in my second semester, when I was diagnosed with thyroid cancer and and withdrew from all of my classes. When I finally returned to school, I was still sick, had to drop classes again, and lost my job. Despite my good grades previously, I was in danger of not graduating.
I finally transferred a third time to Park University, where I am currently enrolled. I’m paying less for many of the same services I received at previous schools. I’m happy here, and I don’t feel manipulated. In hindsight, I wish I could have gone here immediately after completing my GED. Instead, unfortunately, I have debt passing through four different schools. My loans are near the limit. I will have to take fewer classes, and if I am able to graduate it will take me longer.
The odds are against me, but I’ll overcome it. Not everybody has the same perseverance as I have, and this is the part where a lot of people just stop, and those are the people I want to be an advocate for. Taxpayers do not contribute to Pell grants for students like me to be mislead and buried in debt, all driven by a severe lack of information. It’s time for our government to help provide us access to information so that those of us who seek to gain skills and be educated do not fall prey to colleges that can operate and turn a profit with no accountability.
Ellen Griffin is a full time college student studying Social Psychology at Park University. She hopes to use her education to improve the way people communicate with one another in business. She has a 15-year-old daughter who she hopes will be inspired by her educational journey.
A certain image of the struggling Millennial shows up often in the media – underemployed, underpaid, and swimming in debt. I am that Millennial. I am buried in more than $113,000 of student loan debt, and can barely stay afloat financially. And there are thousands of people grappling with similar stories. These numbers – these people – can’t be linked to the common misrepresentation of Millennials – that we’re lazy, entitled, and misguided. There’s a much larger network of institutional barriers at work here. One of these barriers is accountability of our higher educational institutions. Prospective students should be able to access critical information that would influence their college of choice, as it is one of the most expensive investments many of us will ever make.
I graduated from the University of Pittsburgh in 2007 with bachelor’s degrees in Anthropology and Sociology, and a certificate in Women’s Studies, just as the economy was beginning to stagnate. I loved my time at Pitt. I honed my analytical skills, expanded my understanding of worldviews, and learned the value of a liberal arts education. It was just the college experience I had been promised, and it was so personally enriching. But that experience doesn’t seem to translate that easily for hiring managers.
I thought having three degrees would have made me more well-rounded and appealing to potential employers, as it demonstrated my analytical skills and work ethic. At least that’s what I was led to believe when I was provided with a list of careers paths for sociologists and anthropologists and the variety of ways in which we could leverage our degrees. These lists made the job market out to be brimming with opportunities, all without releasing a single statistic from my school on how many students in my program actually found work in their field. I spent the summer after graduating looking for a job, and when I couldn’t find anything in my field, I eventually settled for a minimum wage job at my local Starbucks.
My mistake, I thought, was my lack of specialization, so I signed the papers, pursued the shiny program brochures and enrolled myself in a masters in interior design program at Chatham University, believing that it would lead to a good job.
Interior design has always been a hobby and secondary interest of mine, and those around me echoed the idea that pursuing a more focused degree would lead to a more stable job and a good living. Perhaps unsurprisingly, when I graduated in the fall of 2009, I was still without a job. We were in the throes of the worst recession since the Great Depression, the housing market had collapsed, and finding a job was that much harder as a young person. I’ve spent the years since initially working three part-time jobs, and moving into a full-time position stagnating at around $30,000 a year. Finally, after going a year and a half without a raise and working 40 hours a week, I got a second part-time job.
Looking back at my education, I can’t help but feel mislead and cheated. While I’ll never regret my undergraduate liberal arts degrees, I pursued my graduate education without realizing how important your choice of school and program is when planning for and pursuing a career. It isn’t as if I never did my homework, there just isn’t enough information available for research. I may have been able to know how many students graduated from my school in my programs, and how many of them found work in their field, or found work at all a year after graduation. But right now, our government nor our schools make any of that information available. These details would have heavily influenced which school I attended, what programs I selected, and how much debt I’d be willing to accumulate for my education. But the blame instead has to fall on my shoulders, and schools continue to share none of the accountability.
Since graduation, I’ve been continuously solicited for donations with these requests following me through moves and relocation, but have not found equal efforts to give students resources on finding work in their field.
Transparency and accountability provided through higher education data would arm students with information to help them make the informed decision that I could not. Further, colleges should be, in part, accountable for the placement of their students post-graduation and accountable at holding their degrees to the esteem in which they cost. Simply put: if the students are paying a premium for the degree, the institutions should be accountable for delivering a return on investment.
For me, getting a return on investment will be a lifelong battle. I continue to hold onto the hope that those so quick to point fingers and call Millennials names will eventually recognize the need for action. Until then, I’ll continue to work more than 40 hours a week.
Bridget is a more-than-full-time working girl who spends her nights easing her furiously fervent mind by daydreaming about writing op-eds and taking her activism to the next level. In her free time she enjoys volunteering in her community, spending time outdoors and pretending she has a green thumb. She is perilously passionate about Millennials and their fight to reclaim any semblance of the American Dream.
Students today have a vast amount of options for where to obtain an education, which allows us a lot of flexibility in finding schools of different sizes, cost, and locations. It’s a great advantage for some, but can create quite a lot of stress if you aren’t exactly sure how to assess which school will set you up best for post-graduation success. Students, especially those from underserved or underrepresented backgrounds, need data that clearly explains graduation and career success rates for people like them. In order to create a generation of leaders and innovators, today’s students need to make more informed decisions on which paths will lead them there.
I aspired to become a lawyer since I was 14, so I was lucky to already have an idea of which programs would help me reach my goals. This didn’t necessarily make shopping for colleges easier, though. High school advisers and parents can be great resources to students struggling with higher education decisions, but I’m a first generation college student from a non-English speaking family, and there was not a lot of advice to go around. Most of my decisions were made through my own independent research. While my high school adviser was helpful in directing me to scholarship opportunities, I was essentially on my own to pick the right college.
As a 17-year-old, I did not have nearly enough knowledge of federal loan programs, extra college fees, trends in increasing tuition costs, or credit transferability to make the best possible decision when considering the investment I was making in paying for school. Institutions of higher education sometimes provide a cost calculator on their websites and some even provide financial aid estimators. These tools can be helpful in estimating front-end costs, but they do little to educate on what life after graduation, or dropping out, would bring. It only takes a few clicks for a student to receive thousands of dollars in loans, but some can end up repaying them for decades afterward. Once on campus, students have a lot to manage — jobs, internships, community involvement, all on top of classes — so often times learning about our interest rates, repayment options and potential loan forgiveness programs come as a harsh reality after graduation. Colleges need to be more transparent when advertising their costs by also informing prospective students on the costs that go along with repayment.
It can be an even higher stakes situation for students with backgrounds similar to my own, who may not have family or community resources, may need extra support, and may not be native English speakers. We need more information on which schools best serve first generation and minority students to feel comfortable and assured we’ll find a college committed to our success. A college campus can be a very unfamiliar environment when you don’t have family members to help navigate the strange new setting. Students from similar backgrounds already on campus can be a huge resource to prospective students, as they understand the struggles and can help provide guidance. But that alone isn’t enough. Sharing simply the number of minority students at a given school doesn’t tell us about the community we may be joining. Our institutions of higher education need to paint a more accurate picture of their minority communities, and the rate of success of those communities experience after graduation, including how prepared they are for the workforce. It’s a great resource for some of us, who are not used to asking for help and may let ourselves fail out of college before mentioning anything to anyone, but it’s frankly not enough.
I can’t speak for every low-income, first generation, minority college student in America, but I know these words resonate with a lot of my peers. While we know we need to take the reigns of our own success, we need to be empowered to do so, and it is clear that there is a lot of information that needs to be made available before students can make a decision that will impact the rest of their lives and those close to them. What we need right now is better data, more of it, and to have it in a transparent and easily digestible form.
Thien is a graduate of the University of Nebraska – Lincoln with degrees in Political Science and Environmental Studies. He served as UNL student body president and pursued increased state funding for colleges with the student government. He has also worked with the National Campus Leadership Council to advocate for college affordability on a national level.
READ MORE ABOUT HIGHER EDUCATION DATA
” The College Scorecard is completely free and allows users to search for schools and sort them based on information the user cares about, such as net prices, what percent of students graduate on time, whether students can repay their loans, and the median income for students after leaving school. This is the first time that this data has been collected, visualized, and made easily accessible on this scale. “
Read the full blog post here.