Last month's Regional Insights column ("Do Benefits Outweigh Cost of College?" June 3) showed that merely getting a college degree doesn't always result in better job prospects or earnings. The value of pursuing a college education also depends on how much college costs and how likely you are to graduate.
The Pittsburgh Region is lucky to have some of the best universities in the nation, but they also have fairly high tuition. U.S. Department of Education statistics show that in 2010-11, the University of Pittsburgh had the second highest tuition and fees for in-state students of any four-year public university in the country (Penn State was the highest), and Carnegie Mellon University had the 10th highest tuition and fees among four-year private, non-profit colleges in the nation.
The most expensive college education of all, however, is the one that never results in a degree. A shocking fact about higher education in America is that on average, more than 40 percent of the students who go to a four-year college or university don't graduate (at least not from the school where they started).
The most selective colleges generally have the highest graduation rates, whereas the colleges that are easiest to get into generally turn out to be the hardest to finish. U.S. Department of Education data show that among the students who started college in 2004, the graduation rate was 87 percent for those who went to the most selective colleges (i.e., colleges that admitted fewer than 25 percent of those who applied), but the graduation rate was only 45 percent for those who went to the least selective colleges (those that admitted 90 percent or more of their applicants), and only 29 percent for those who went to open enrollment schools (those that admit anyone who can pay).
In the Pittsburgh Region, the highest graduation rate is at Carnegie Mellon, where 86 percent of students who were admitted graduated within six years. The second highest graduation rate is at Grove City College, where 84 percent of students graduate. Pitt's 76 percent graduation rate is third highest.
In contrast, most other colleges in our region graduate fewer than two-thirds of the students who enter, and at some, fewer than 50 percent of the students graduate within six or even eight years, including The Art Institute, the Penn State regional campuses, Point Park University, Thiel College and the University of Phoenix. (Graduation rates are based on the percentage of students who graduated from the same school where they started, and so some students may transfer to other colleges and graduate from there.)
These differences are so large that it's actually misleading to simply rank colleges based on their tuitions. A more expensive college can actually be a better value if it has a higher graduation rate, because students who enroll there will be more likely to receive a degree.
Consider two hypothetical colleges. College A charges $30,000 per year in tuition, while College B charges $20,000. While 80 percent of College A's students graduate, only 40 percent of College B's students graduate. For simplicity, let's assume that those who don't graduate drop out after two years.
If College A admits 1,000 students, 800 of them will graduate, and the college will have collected a total of $108 million in tuition revenue over the previous four years: $96 million from those who graduated, and $12 million from those who didn't. That works out to $135,000 for every degree awarded. If College B admits 1,000 students, only 400 of them will graduate; the college will have collected a total of $32 million in tuition revenue from those who graduated but another $24 million from those who didn't, for a total of $56 million, or $140,000 for every degree awarded. In other words, even though College A's tuition makes it look like it's 50 percent more expensive than College B, College A actually produces college graduates at a lower cost than College B.
Even worse, college students who don't graduate will very likely have thousands or even tens of thousands of dollars in debt with no degree to show for it. Although national statistics indicate that people with "some college" do better in the labor market than those with no college at all, it's likely that much of this is because the students who made it into college in the first place have higher skills than the average high school graduate.
Those students might have been better off going to a two-year college, getting an Associate Degree, and avoiding a lot of debt, or going directly into a manufacturing job, developing skills through on-the-job training, and saving money to go to college in the future.
Low graduation rates aren't entirely the fault of the colleges, though. They're also due to the poor preparation of the students who enter them. U.S. Department of Education data show that about one-third of students entering post-secondary education have to take at least one remedial course. Moreover, remedial education has become a significant and growing expense at many colleges and universities, and that increases the cost of a college degree for everyone.
So if we want to increase the value of higher education, we should start by improving the effectiveness of elementary and secondary education, i.e., our public schools. Although many high schools proudly report the percentage of their graduates who go on to college, they rarely tell you how many of those students actually finish their college degrees. The best measure of the quality of public schools is how proficient their graduates are in key skills, not whether they go to college, since high proficiency levels will help students whether they want to go to college or go directly into the workforce. And schools in the Pittsburgh Region have a lot of improving to do, since more than 37 percent of the 11th-graders in the region can't do math properly, and 26 percent can't read adequately.
A future column will look at what else makes college education so expensive and what can be done about it.
Harold D. Miller is President of Future Strategies LLC and Adjunct Professor of Public Policy and Management at Carnegie Mellon University. He publishes www.PittsburghFuture.blogspot.com, an internet resource on regional economic and civic issues. First Published July 1, 2012 12:00 AM