Paying for college
“Go to college.” We hear it from parents, teachers, and talking heads citing stats about unemployment and lifetime earnings potential. They tell us because they did, and it changed their lives; they tell us because they didn’t, and they want to change ours.
And they’re right. A college degree is the economic engine of the middle class, supplying Virginia’s young people with the skills and knowledge needed to thrive in the 21st century global economy. By the end of the decade, 8 in 10 new jobs will require post-secondary education. We need to be ready for those jobs.
But to do this successfully, our generation has to meet new challenges that threaten the economic and social advantages that have made college such a good investment in the past.
The education we’ve never needed more has never been less affordable. Soaring college costs fueled by the recession and related cuts to public funding have left many unable to afford a degree without excessive debt—or at all.
In Virginia, tuition at 4-year institutions has almost doubled since the mid-2000’s. Now the average total costs as an undergraduate is estimated at 46.9% of a family’s disposable income—that’s more than 10 percentage points higher than it was just 10 years ago. Explosive costs have led to a crippling $1.3 trillion in student loan debt nationwide.
These trends are unsustainable.
On average, 62.9% of Virginia’s college freshmen will graduate within six years. That’s a few points above the national average—but it needs to be much better. With the financial costs of attending college and the opportunity costs of dropping out continuing to soar, it’s critical that students finish the degrees they start.
At the same time, those degrees must reflect the tradition of excellence long maintained by Virginia’s public colleges and universities. Although students are paying more now than ever before, national numbers point to shrinking teaching investments coupled with questionable learning outcomes. In 1960, 75% of college courses were taught by tenured or tenure-track professors; now, 73% are taught by contingent faculty or graduate students. Meanwhile, a 2011 study suggested that up to 45% of students show no improvement in critical thinking, complex reasoning, or writing skills during their first two years of college.
Keeping higher education affordable shouldn’t cost us quality, and focusing on increased enrollment shouldn’t overshadow the need for successful learning outcomes and completion rates once students arrive.
“Go to college” doesn’t cut it anymore.
Four-year university, community college, or workforce training? Private, public, or for-profit? Full-time, part-time, or online? How do we fund our studies, and how do we choose studies that will one day fund us? How do we split time between the courses we need to graduate, the hourly jobs we need to eat, and the internships we need to compete?
The answers are different for each of us. But the mounting challenges of getting them right, and the long-term costs of getting them wrong, are familiar to all of us. We need access to accurate, current, user-friendly tools and information to make the smart decisions that will lead to successful outcomes.
So while our parents may be right, the game has changed since they made decisions about going to college. It’s being played against the odds, for higher stakes, and by more complex and rapidly-changing rules. Virginia21 empowers us to level that playing field – and make sure college remains a winning decision for our generation – by taking action and staying informed.
 National Center for Higher Education Management Systems, “Linking Higher Education with Workforce and Economic Development,” April 2009.