What Actually Makes College Worth the Money

Calculating Costs

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Calculating Costs
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Smart About College

The cost of college has become a crisis. Students (and often their families) spend hundreds of thousands of dollars in pursuit of a diploma. Data from the Federal Reserve for the third quarter of 2020 shows that for the first time total U.S. student debt has surpassed $1.7 trillion — a 102% increase from a decade earlier — which makes selecting a college one of the biggest and most complex financial decisions families make. Ron Lieber, award-winning Your Money columnist for The New York Times, recently released "The Price You Pay for College," a book intended to help families navigate a confusing and often overwhelming selection process. Easily one of the most important sections of Lieber's college road map is devoted to what he calls "value," or aspects of the college experience that may be important to a student and their future success. Here's what to look for.

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Professor teaching students
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Teachers Who Have Time to Teach

Teaching was once a college's core function, Lieber says, with experienced professors shaping and guiding students into adulthood. Now most professors are rewarded for research achievements, and colleges find it more cost-effective to have grad student or adjunct professors step in. Adjuncts probably don't have an office or get included in faculty or department meetings, and may not know what they're teaching until a week before the term starts. "They're less likely to push the envelope by doing creative teaching or expecting more than average effort from their students," Lieber says. If they're teaching many classes or working a day job, they probably don't have enough time or energy to devote to preparation, office hours, and emailing back and forth with students.

Ask prospective colleges about their student-teacher ratio when removing grad student teachers and adjuncts from the calculations. Schools may not have an answer. "And if they do, they may not tell you," Lieber says. "Ditto if you'd like to know the average number of classes in the first half of an undergraduate's education that are staffed by instructors who are not full-time or tenured or tenure track." What to do? Go to the websites of the departments a student is most interested in and look at the roster of professors. Search for words such as "adjunct," "visiting," or "lecturer" to get a sense of who will likely be teaching.

Faculty are more likely to be full time at small liberal arts colleges, Lieber says. Conversely, if the goal is to learn workplace skills and build a useful network, learning from adjuncts in full-time jobs in a chosen industry might be advantageous.

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Multiple choice test

Academic Rigor

Actual learning is another important consideration, as a 2006 study from the U.S. Department of Education notes that "parents and students have no solid evidence, comparable across institutions, of how much students learn in colleges." Another study cited by Lieber found that 45% of students sampled had experienced no statistically significant gain in complex reasoning or critical thinking skills from their first two years in college. Lieber suggests that students and parents ask colleges to "describe how your institutional research office or the individual academic departments measure progress in learning."

Related: The Cost of College Around the World

Students talking

Peer Community

Also worth paying for is the chance for students to find their tribe or peers, and form lifelong relationships. "If kinship is your highest priority as you shop for a college, it does not make you or your child shallow," Lieber says. "The schools themselves consider peer quality to be an urgent matter." At least one factor to inquire about: the percentage of students who live on campus (and whether they must for some years). "If people scatter each afternoon or are gone on weekends, it is harder to bond," he says.

A thriving Greek system, more common at larger schools, can be a quick way to "form tighter bonds," Lieber says, "as long as you can sort yourself out and into the best fitting fraternity or sorority before and during rush period."

Don't rely on officials' responses to questions. If you tour a campus, ask student hosts, as well. Specifically, Lieber suggests asking: "'Who are your three closest friends here, and how did you find them? Was it easy? How are they different from your high school friends?' See if they light up immediately or struggle to answer."

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Diversity in All Forms

Students benefit in many ways from living and studying in diverse environments, making this another aspect of a college's true value. "The United States is growing more diverse, not less, and the long-term economic trends in the world are likely to tilt toward more trade and the need for more cooperation," Lieber says. "The more that college students learn about the perspectives of others, the better prepared they will be." Encounters with diverse groups result in better leadership skills later. "Gallup found that recent college graduates who strongly agreed they'd regularly interacted with people different from them were 2.2 times more likely to think that their degree was worth the cost," Lieber says.

To figure out what a student body looks like at a potential college or university, try The Common Data Set, a form colleges give to list makers and ranking operations such as U.S. News & World Report. Section B2 of this form details the gender, racial, and ethnic makeup of each school's study body. (Section 1 looks at faculty diversity.)

Lecture hall

Smaller Classes

Lieber doesn't say small colleges have more advantages than big ones, or vice versa, but provides information about pros and cons as they may apply to a child's personality, learning style, and goals. But some studies show that more undergraduates drop out as class size goes up, and take longer to complete degrees. Smaller classes make it easier for professors to find "students with promise or who are perilously underperforming," Lieber says, to identify that "talented quiet student."

Class size on its own isn't entirely telling. A study at the University of Michigan (a large school) found that 84% of classes have fewer than 50 students, and 57% have fewer than 20. When measured by time spent in classes with fewer than 20 people, the numbers don't look nearly as impressive: just 19% — while 30% of the time was spent in classes with 100 or more students. The takeaway: Ask college admissions reps for class-size data based on time spent in small or large classrooms.

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Graduation hat and diploma

Student Retention

More questions to ask: How many people stick around any given campus after completing their first year, versus dropping out or transferring? How long, on average, does it take students to graduate? "When lots of people leave a school after the first year, it can be a sign of a troubled institution," Lieber says. And if it takes longer than four years to graduate, you will probably end up spending more money as the student's entrance into the workforce is delayed. This is where small schools shine, Lieber says, with many students continuing after their first year and finishing in four years. Ask also about first-year retention by department or program; these figures can vary widely at a large university.

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The University of Notre Dame
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Alumni Giving

There is a perception that large schools may be superior specifically because of the sheer size of their alumni networks. But Lieber cites a Gallup poll asking 5,100 college graduates how helpful that network had been to their career and only 9% said "helpful or very helpful." Two-thirds said it had not been a factor.

People sometimes use alumni giving as a proxy for school satisfaction, "which then becomes a potential predictor for the likelihood someone might throw a rope back for someone younger," Lieber says. If you're a believer, larger schools do well on this front. Specific schools he mentions include Notre Dame, University of Southern California, University of North Carolina, Clemson University, and Georgia Tech.

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