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Will College Be Worth It?

At Young Invincibles, we’ve been researching how complicated it is to figure out where to go to college and navigate the federal financial aid system. To help with that research, we recently visited Portland Community College, an institution that serves over 90,000 students, so we could apply our research to who it affects the most: students themselves.

There are a lot of higher education reform proposals out there right now to simplify the higher education system and make it more transparent, including a grading system designed by the Department of Education. Others talk about simplifying the FAFSA, the Free Application for Financial Student Aid form. Senators Ron Wyden, Mark Warner and Marco Rubio introduced legislation to gather more data about schools and students, including what happens to students after graduation.

At Portland Community College, we gave the students some context through a short presentation on gaps in the current system and proposed reforms with Barbara Smith Warner, a staffer in Senator Wyden’s Office. State Delegate Michael Dembrow shared some of the work he’s doing as Chair of the Higher Education Committee in the Oregon State Legislature. But the real focus of the event was hearing from students.

Barbara Smith Warner from Sen. Ron Wyden's office talks about the
Barbara Smith Warner from Sen. Ron Wyden’s office talks about the “Know Before You Go Bill”

And then we asked every student to evaluate their higher education experience by asking them to complete the sentence: “My Degree Will Be Worth It If…”

We got all sorts of answers, but two prevailing themes were the ability to get a good job and pay off student loans. The average student loan load is $25,497 in Oregon, and tuition has increased by 27% over the last five years. A lot of that has to do with state budget cuts to public institutions: $2,665 per student since 2007.

It got even more interesting as we started to hear individual student stories.

Education and Parenting

Courtney is a young parent who is taking pre-requisites part-time at PCC for two years in order to apply to a radiology program. She was very interested in the human body and helping people but was acutely aware of the relatively high typical radiologist’s starting salary.

Courtney: “I do it all for my little girl.”

Courtney is 100% motivated to go back to school for her 4 year-old daughter. It was tough missing important milestones with her child, but hopefully her daughter will understand that her mother wasn’t always there when she was young so she could give her a better life by having a more stable career.

Although she felt confident in radiology’s potential to provide a good income, she felt anxious about the competitiveness of the programs, and whether the time and money investment would be worth being away from her daughter. “Even if it all does work out, it’s still robbing Peter to pay Paul.”

Returning to school is a very difficult choice for a single parent, requiring a personal sacrifice and juggling parenting and academic responsibilities. Institutions that help student-parents succeed should be awarded with financial support, but we currently do not track student-parent performance and current conversations about performance based funding have not focused on the issue.

We talked to over one hundred students, and a few more experiences stood out:

  • One young man earned a political science degree from Brown University but couldn’t find a job in the field. He began taking sociology classes at PCC, and felt frustrated at “starting again” at 25.
  • John returned to school to obtain a business degree, but is concerned about his degree’s value in the eyes of businesses. He described degrees from the University of Phoenix being looked down upon and would like to see information that shows how businesses value degrees from different schools.
  • A middle-aged gentleman has his sights set on getting his PhD in philosophy by 2018. He knew it would be difficult to make a lot of money in philosophy, but he was determined anyway.
  • Isaac had dropped out of Cal Poly after studying computer engineering for two years. His number one priority is to pick up mechanical engineering skills that will result in a job. “I think everyone here is pretty job focused. There aren’t too many 26 year-olds going for a liberal arts degree in community college.”
  • David is at PCC-Cascade taking care of science prerequisites so he could study petroleum engineering at Louisiana State University. He has taken physics and chemistry classes at PCC for around 3 years and would like to take his degree to work on cleanly extracting energy resources in Alaska.
  • We met a 30-year old woman who has worked in the food service industry since she was 16 and now holds a management position. She couldn’t advance further in her career without a college degree. She will consider her experience successful if she can get a job doing what she loves – educating people about nutrition and sustainable food production.
Samantha realized she needed a degree to get ahead
Samantha realized she needed a degree to get ahead

But we also heard measures of success that went beyond making money.

Education and Citizenship

One young woman, Ebony, is dedicated to going into neuroscience after completing pre-requisites at PCC. She didn’t know how many PCC graduates matriculate into neuroscience programs or how successful their careers were and wished she had more information on other students’ paths.

Ebony talks about pursuing nursing and standing up for her community
Ebony talks about pursuing nursing and standing up for her community

While getting into an advanced nursing program was her clear goal, her number one reason for pursuing education was to become a better citizen: by becoming more informed about the world she could better represent her friends, family and fellow Oregonians.

Ebony’s answer defies traditional post-graduation employment metrics, and reminds us that providing simplicity and transparency in the higher education system is not always itself so simple.

Our time at Portland Community College was well-spent.  We had a great dialogue that took concrete steps to ensure that the nuances of the student perspective are at the forefront of decision makers’ minds as they work through these complicated policy issues in higher education.

Rep. Michael Dembrow and our student host Shannon
Rep. Michael Dembrow and our student host Shannon