Controlling the cost of higher education

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For a long time, it seemed as though attending a four-year university was the surefire path for high school graduates to take in order to study and obtain a degree that will help them get a good job.

That was the road taken by some 19.9 million students entering the fall 2018 semester according to the National Center for Education Statistics. That was an increase from 15.3 million in 2000 but still down from the highest enrollment seen, 21 million in 2010.

The same report included a postsecondary finance section where it cited research done by the same institution on the “average undergraduate tuition and fees and room and board rates charged for full-time students in degree-granting postsecondary institutions, by level and control of institution,” from the 1963-1964 school year through 2016-2017.

There, it was calculated that “For the 2016-2017 academic year, the average annual price was $17,237 at public institutions, $44,551 at private, nonprofit institutions, and $25,431 at private, for-profit institutions,” the report states.

Entering the 1963-1964 school year, the average cost across all institutions (four- and two-year, public and private colleges) was $2,495, according to the report.

What has caused the overall increase in the cost of college? The answer may be rooted in competition.

“I think nationwide for universities, it’s been a little bit of an arms race,” said Richard Bray, the director of communications, media relations and marketing for Blinn College, a junior college with multiple campuses. “You have to have the nicest facilities, you have to have the shiniest objects so that when people take their campus tours, they’re blown away.”

That has, in turn, driven the cost of entrance up across the board, therefore creating a larger need of assistance in order to afford just walking in the door. A Forbes report from February of earlier this year stated the total student loan debt across 44.7 million borrowers in the United States sat at $1.56 trillion.

There are, however, ways around digging as deep a debt hole to climb out of, and the junior college route has continued to provide a feasible detour to the same goal. With rising college costs, fewer people seemed concerned about “the lower levels of upper education.”

“We’re actually seeing that change a lot. I think there used to be that stigma (that going to a community college is lesser compared to a four-year school) but nowadays as the price of four-year universities continues to grow, I think people are starting to realize (how viable an option it is),” Bray said.

He backed that statement up by providing recent statistics from the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board.

“According to their numbers, Blinn students who take 30 credit hours during this 2019-2020 academic year, this fall through the next summer semester, would save $4,036 in tuition and fees compared to the average state college,” he said. “That’s about 42% of your tuition and fees that you can save by attending Blinn.”

At the end of the day, though, college just may not be for everybody, and that’s just fine.

“It’s not always for everyone but the problem is that for 25 years, we’ve been preaching that it is for everyone but it’s not,” said Jeff Koch, Career and Technical Education Director for Sealy ISD. “We’re getting ready to have a huge wave of skilled workers and tradespeople who are getting ready to retire and we don’t have people to fill in for them.”

He went on to talk about another stigma that he hopes to continue to bring to cessation with the College and Career Center located in Sealy High School.

“We’re talking about jobs like welders, machinists, HVAC, construction, people who can make a very good living,” Koch said. “The problem is the shift in paradigm; how do we shift it back to the trades because what happens is the parents look at it like, ‘Well my kid’s better than that.’”

Randy Wooten, Texas State Technical College’s provost for the Fort Bend County campus in Rosenberg, echoed those thoughts.

“If I were to (answer the question of) ‘What should I do after high school?’ I would say go where the jobs are,” he said. “The place where the jobs are is the middle skills, the technical skills … It’s kind of like fishing, if you want to go fishing and want to catch fish, go to where the fish are. If you want a job, go where the jobs are; the jobs are in the technical skills.”

He added that all of the programs offered at TSTC develop students to obtain a high-demand, high-wage job that allows graduates to get right to work and pay back their student loans.

“The lineworker program is a certificate-one degree and those are usually around $7,000, each of our programs cost a little differently so we’ll be talking averages,” Wooten said. “After one year that the young man or woman would go through, a lineworker is a $65,000 a year job so you can pay off a student debt of $7,000 in about three paychecks.”

If, however, a student were not able to get a job right out of college, TSTC offers a money-back guarantee for four of their programs.

“We take (job placement) so seriously that if you’re not able to find a job in six months, we’ll give you your money back … Not all of our programs have that but welding, diesel, lineworker and electrical power and controls all do,” Wooten said. “We’ve offered the money-back guarantee for three years now and we have yet to give back a dollar.”

So what will college really cost you?

Four years of your life and $50,000 in debt just for an annual salary of $20,000? Or can you make it work for you and get placed in a high-demand job with less repayment stress? You determine how much education costs.

“We have a purpose statement that says, ‘Our job is to make the American dream available to any Texan,’” Wooten said. “If you have the type of programs we do, the kind of salaries we’re talking about, the type of demand we have, you can do that because you will get a living wage when you leave here.”

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