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The High Cost of Education?

As the masthead says “no opinions, just code“, I rarely give my opinions about things.  But, I recently saw an interesting documentary on CNN called Inside the Ivory Tower – Is College Worth the Cost and since I am a Professor I thought I’d give another perspective.  I totally get where these guys were coming from, as they showed example after example of students accumulating upwards of $200,000 in student debt.  Many of the interviews showed bewildered parents torn between their limited finances and the prospect of having to pay $60,000 a year for a college education for their children.

These stories always focus on the extreme cases – the $60,000 a year education.  But, there are other options.  I was a product of the SUNY system: Oneonta, Buffalo, and Syracusefor my bachelors, masters, and doctorate, and am a big believer in what SUNY does.  My undergraduate education was pretty cheap ($600 a semester!), and my masters education was also cheap ($900 a semester).  For my doctorate, I only went because I had a graduate assistantship and didn’t have to pay.   Now, I know that college costs have gone up dramatically, but I wondered if there is a reasonable route to get your kid through college.

Let me say at the outset, if you are wealthy and can afford to send your kid to a $60,000 a year school, go for it.  Those schools are wonderful, and give the kids fantastic memories of their college years.  But, if you are a middle class family, or even lower on the salary scale, there are other options.

Lets take the worst case scenario: you’ve got no money for school and you don’t bother trying for any financial aid – you are on your own.

Here in my county (like almost every other county in America) there is a community college.  Our community college (Worwic),  costs $112 a credit hour (including fees).   Therefore, a two year Associates degree will cost around $6,700 – or $3,360 a year.  Once you graduate from Worwic, you can then transfer to our local University – Salisbury University.  Salisbury University costs $8,400 a year (including fees).

So, without any financial aid or scholarships, a 4 year college degree will cost $23,500 (of course there are other costs like books, but we’ll leave that off for now).  How can you pay for that?  Again, lets consider the worst case scenario: you have to put yourself through school.

If you worked on campus for $8.00 an hour, 20 hours a week, 32 weeks a year (two semesters) you would make $5,120.  Now, lets say you got another job for the summer making $8.00 an hour for 40 hours a week, for 10 weeks: you would make $3,200 – this gives you the month of January off.  Combining the two, you would make $8,320 a year or $33,280 over four years.

Therefore, your income is $33,280 and your college costs are $23,500.  It is certainly possible to pay for college.  This is a back-of-the-napkin estimate, and there should be more costs involved like books, parking, lunch on campus, etc.  But it should illustrate that choosing this particular route makes college a little more affordable.  Now, the reality is, if you have good grades you will get merit based scholarships.  In fact, it is not uncommon for an “A” student in high school to receive $2,500-$3,000 a year in scholarships at Salisbury University, bringing the costs down.

Now a reality check – working a job while going to college is hard.  You don’t have time to go to all the parties, football games, concerts on campus, or other fun events.  Living at home with mom and dad is also hard.  Being a commuter at college can feel isolating if you don’t find ways to integrate into the campus life (hence, the on-campus job vs. working somewhere else).  Also, last time I checked, the Community College doesn’t have an 80,000 seat football stadium, they won’t be playing in the Final Four anytime soon, and there won’t be any seminars from a theoretical physicist who is working on solving time travel – and did I mention you are living with mom and dad?  Remember, we are looking at a worst case scenario.

But, what you will get is a solid college education, small class sizes, and faculty who focus on you, the undergraduate.  What you make of that education is up to you.  My next post will focus on how to get the most of this kind of education.

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