Personal Finance

Michelle Singletary: College costs aren’t always worth it, alumni say

If you leave college with student loans, there’s a good chance you’ll end up feeling that your education wasn’t worth the liabilities you’ll have to carry.

Gallup recently teamed with Purdue University and the Lumina Foundation to conduct a national poll of more than 30,000 college graduates. The study, called the Gallup-Purdue Index, or GPI, found some not-so-surprising results along with a few depressing revelations.

Among participants who graduated between 2006 and 2015, 63 percent borrowed to help pay for college. We’ve seen this trend for some time. The total amount of outstanding student loan debt is about $1.3 trillion. In the Gallup-Purdue study, among those who borrowed, the median student loan balance was $30,000.

Half of recent black alumni and 42 percent of first-generation college students (neither parent completed a bachelor’s degree) had debt, “raising particular concerns about how student loans affect the capacity of higher education to level the playing field for many Americans with less-advantaged backgrounds,” the report said.

Here’s the depressing part: Alumni were asked whether they thought their education was worth the cost. It was a key point the survey wanted to address.

“Given that many families invest heavily in higher education for their children, there should be little doubt about its value,” the report concluded.

Well, there was a lot of doubt.

Only 50 percent of survey participants overall strongly agreed that their university education was worth the cost. There was only a slight difference between students who attended public schools and those who graduated from private nonprofit universities.

The report found that, among people who graduated between 2006 and 2015, only 38 percent thought they got their money’s worth. Among graduates of private for-profit universities, only 26 percent thought the education they received was worth the money they spent. A higher percentage of those private for-profit university graduates had taken out student loans.

“Clearly, we all need to work harder on improving quality and reducing cost as much as possible,” said Brandon Busteed, Gallup’s executive director for education and workforce development.

In about a month, many students will be applying for early admission to college. From the beginning of September to the typical Nov. 1 deadline, there’s a lot of stress in many households. I feel it, too, because I have a son who is a senior in high school. My husband and I recently attended a college-prep meeting at his school. I left with so much anxiety. Where is the right place for our son? And how much will it eventually cost? Most importantly, will college prepare him for today’s job market?

Well, the Gallup-Purdue report includes interviews with graduates that prove again what matters for people feeling they got something out of college isn’t whether it was a brand-name school. It’s the relationships built while there.

Alumni felt better about what it cost them to go to college if they had professors or mentors who took an interest in them, if they got a paid job or internship, if they were active in extracurricular activities and organizations or if they held leadership positions. Of all the factors the graduates listed, absent was that they went to a school with a high reputation.

“Alumni data indicate that if universities pay attention to key factors from the Gallup-Purdue Index associated with positive outcomes later in life, this will help graduates feel that their school experience was worth the expense,” the report said.

My main takeaway: Maybe asking whether college is worth it is not quite the right question. For many, college is worth it because it has become the entry-level credential in the quest to find a job that can lead to financial security.

Instead, we should be asking graduates: How much is too much to borrow to go to college?

Thirty-six percent of recent graduates with student loans said the debt has caused them to delay homeownership. And it should make them pause. They shouldn’t buy a home if they are burdened with student loans.

“This year’s results serve as another reminder that student-loan debt can be a significant obstacle to a student’s future success,” Purdue President Mitch Daniels said.

I love that the Gallup-Purdue Index is digging deep to draw out what really is key to a successful college career and how that impacts people’s ability to prosper. My hope is that the results will encourage families to think twice before crushing themselves and their children with student loans, believing that college is worth it at any cost.

Hear Michelle Singletary’s personal finance reports on www.npr.org. Readers may write to her c/o The Washington Post, 1150 15th St., NW, Washington DC 20081.

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