Home Economic Trends No, You Don’t Need a $200K College Degree – Ryan McMaken (02/28/2019)

No, You Don’t Need a $200K College Degree – Ryan McMaken (02/28/2019)

A female supporter of Bernie Sanders is advertising on Twitter the fact that she went 226,000 in debt to get a college degree in speech pathology.

Those who posted the video apparently believe that this ought to be interpreted as a convincing example of how hard it is to pay for college these days.

There is no doubt that a college education is not free. But publicly admitting that one owes nearly a quarter of a million dollars for (apparently) just a four year degree will hardly be convincing for anyone familiar with the actual cost of attaining a college degree.

After all, according to the US Department of Education, “annual current dollar prices for undergraduate tuition, fees, room, and board were estimated to be $16,757 at public institutions.”

That’s an annual amount. So, rounding up to $17,000 and multiplying by four, we get $68,000. This, mind you, includes tuition, fees, room, and board. It’s an all inclusive package. So, assuming a student does virtually no outside wage work at all during his or her college career, the student would still get fed, and still have a place to live, while attending school full time.

But, let’s say that this amount is low for many areas. Let’s look at a higher-cost region of the country. According to the institution’s website, an education at the University of Colorado at Boulder is estimate to cost $28,750 for a year’s worth of tuition, room, board, books, and fees. Over four years, that’s $115,000. (CNN estimates a four-year degree, plus room and board, costs $105,000.)

As most people know, however, paying for on-campus room and board is often more expensive than living with roommates off campus. And it’s certainly far more expensive than living at home and commuting to work. But, since living at home isn’t an option for everyone, many people share housing and take on part time work to off-set the cost of school.

In other words, a $115,000 price tag (and resulting debt) for an all-inclusive education is at the high end of what a total debt load would be for a reasonable person. It also reflects a situation in which a person spends all four years at a costly four-year institution.

In real life, of course, a college education doesn’t require four years in cases outside the most difficult degrees. Many states employ “guaranteed” transfer programs which enable secondary students to take basic courses at community colleges at lower tuition rates. Freshmen can also knock out 30 or so credit hours and enter the more expensive four-year school as a sophomore. (In-state community college tuition is around half the price of tuition at a public research university.) And, of course, there are numerous programs which allow students to test out of courses through AP credit, CLEP exams, and more.

Some critics of my analysis here might say “Well, what if I want to go to a private school? Won’t that cost more?” It certainly will.

According to the Department of Education, an all-inclusive year of (a non-profit) private school costs $43,065. (For-profit institutions are cheaper.) A full four years at one of these places is likely to cost over $170,000. Tuition alone at a posh second-tear private college like Bowdoin College is a whopping $50,000 per year. (Note the case of this woman who has 100K of debt for her women’s studies degree at NYU.)

Indeed, the private school option appears to be the only way one might end up with $226,000 in student loans. Either that, or a student transfers around to various schools, starting from scratch each time.

But why should those people be taken seriously when they complain about their tuition and debt? People who attend private school already have countless tax-subsidized options available to them. Instead, they choose to attend a private school, and want the taxpayers to subsidize their debt instead. (Most private schools are also subsidized with a variety of grants, but that’s another issue.) And then we’re supposed to feel sorry for them when they end up with a lot of debt.

This is especially unconvincing when we consider that the data on college degrees and earnings shows that where one attains a degree has little effect on earnings. In other words, the extra expense incurred to attend Picturesque University in some charming Midwest town does nothing to actually increase earning potential.

The educational benefits of taking on these additional costs, however, are negligible.

Meanwhile, of course, more responsible consumers attend what the Europeans call a “polytechnic” where students attend to get degrees and quickly and painlessly as possible. The publicly subsidized versions of these schools exist to allow students with real responsibilities to get degrees and get on with their lives at a manageable cost. In other words, taxpayers are already paying for the college educations of students at public universities. They don’t need to be lectured on how they ought to pay even more so little Johnny or little Susie can also get a designer education at a private school as well.

There are real reasons to be concerned about the cost of higher education. Student loans have actually been a significant part of the problem by making students less price sensitive, thus pushing up prices for everyone.

It might also be helpful to weigh the costs and benefits of cost-saving measures used by Europeans, such as larger class sizes, longer wait times, and fewer amenities at colleges.

But it’s not at all convincing when we’re told that we ought to be subsidizing higher education even more for those students who choose to spend far and above what the average cost of what is an already-subsidized higher education.