If you are the parent of a student in high school, I don’t have to tell you that college is expensive. Maybe you have spoken with your kids about paying for college themselves, or perhaps you have been putting money away since they were babies. Wherever you are on the spectrum, the burden of paying for a college education can weigh heavily on a family. No longer are these the days when a student could put herself through college by working 15 hours a week, or working full-time throughout the summer. In the early 1980s, the average cost to attend a public college (including tuition, room and board, and other fees), was $2,870. According to the College Board in 2015-16, a “moderate” cost for attending a public university is $24,061.
In North Carolina, where public universities cost between $15,000 and $25,000 per year, students graduate college with an average debt of $25,218. Although this is below the national average, 61% of North Carolina’s university students have college debt when they graduate.
So what are our options? Many families assume that the loans a student has to repay after attending a private institution must be far greater than from a public school. Certainly, the differences between private and public schools can be seen in outright cost, but the amount of debt that students accrue during college doesn’t necessarily follow suit. Davidson College, for example, had a total cost of attendance in the 2013-14 school year of around $57,458. The average debt though, was $21,365, with only 31% of students graduating with debt. UNC-Greensboro, on the other hand, was priced at $19,172 in 2014, and 73% of graduates had debt, averaging $23,265. There are many variables that can affect these outcomes: family financial support, merit or athletic scholarship awards, or outside sources of funding such as work-study jobs or internships.
For families and students looking to cut costs in higher education, consider a two-year school. Students may gain an Associate’s degree in numerous fields in the span of two years, and either enter the workforce or transfer to a university to complete a Bachelor’s degree. Parents and students often worry that a technical degree may not provide the opportunities of a Bachelor’s, yet an Associate’s degree as a Radiologic Technician, for example, can position a student in a field that is growing much faster than average. Now notice the price of a year at Wake Technical Community College. All-included, it costs a student $11,637 to attend Wake Tech, and this includes $4,000 for room and board, which many students eliminate by living at home.
Another consideration for families when choosing colleges is the idea that a manageable amount of debt is not necessarily negative if the future career prospects are strong. Careers in Biostatistics, for example, are in the “Bright Outlook” category according to the O*Net Occupation Data. This means that Biostatistics is a newly emerging field that has rapid growth projected over the next several years. Home Health Aide is another example of a career field that is growing quickly and has many employment opportunities.
For the student who wants to keep college affordable, is interested in service, and is a dedicated worker, a Work College might be an appropriate fit. Work Colleges are designed to give real-world experience and help students to graduate with minimal debt. Warren Wilson is the only work college in North Carolina. Located in Asheville, Warren Wilson is celebrated by the Fiske Guide to Colleges as a great bang for your buck, delivering strong academics for a good price. The hands-on work experience allows students to gain skills that employers are increasingly seeking on resumes, even for college-educated students.
As you and your students discuss the options, be aware that each situation is unique, and each student’s trajectory may look radically different than that of his classmate. When it comes to the right decisions for our soon-to-be graduates, there is no “one size fits all.”