Column: The college dream is still aliveWe are just getting into the swing of the school year, but high school juniors and seniors are already planning for a fresh start at college. Yet with tuition prices rising enormously in the past few years, traditional-age students and their parents are worried about paying for it all.
By: Mary Lebens, The Farmington Independent
We are just getting into the swing of the school year, but high school juniors and seniors are already planning for a fresh start at college. Yet with tuition prices rising enormously in the past few years, traditional-age students and their parents are worried about paying for it all. Recently I spoke with a friend whose daughter is living at home while attending college. My friend’s voice was soft with pain as she confessed that she was worried her daughter wouldn’t have the same kind of college experience she did. My friend talked about her college friends. The girls met over pizza in the dorm, spent late nights studying together, and eventually buoyed each other’s spirits through marriages and pregnancies. Since my friend can’t afford the cost of the dorm, she worries her daughter will miss out on making life-long friends and enjoying the college experiences that shape a lifetime of work and relationships.
My friend’s words and the pain in her voice stuck with me. Right now we have a generation of students expecting to earn less than what their parents earned, and expecting less from life. Marriages and children are postponed as the good job and stable home remain elusive for many young adults.
As a college educator, I still believe in the dream of attending college on a shoestring, landing a good job, and buying a house. Not just because I did those things, and I see my students doing them, but because statistics buttress my belief. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, last year the unemployment rate for workers with a bachelor’s degree was only 4.9 percent while workers with only a high school diploma suffered an unemployment rate of 9.4 percent. In 2011 workers with a bachelor’s degree earned over $50,000 a year on average, around $20,000 more a year than workers with a high school diploma. College graduates definitely benefit from a higher employment rate and higher pay.
Yet the news is filled with stories about the impending student loan crisis and scores of graduates burdened under crushing debt. What these stories rarely mention is the major students choose and the school they choose are both critical to graduating with minimal debt and finding a good job to repay that debt.
We romanticize college by telling kids they can be anything they want to be when they grow up. The cold truth is you can be anything you want, but you can’t necessarily make a decent living at it. The U.S. Census Bureau released a report this month on earnings by college major, and among the lowest paid majors are arts, education and psychology. While most of us are familiar with the stereotype of the starving artist, few of us picture middle-school teachers and psychologists as destitute. Yet unfortunately there are more graduates with these majors than there are jobs.
The majors in highest demand are engineering, computer science and business. Workers with a bachelor’s degree in engineering earned an average of $91,000 a year in 2011. There is hope for college graduates to land a good-paying job in one of these fields. The tough thing for many parents and teens is swallowing the bitter pill that you can’t be anything you want to be in college. In the first episode of the TV series The Office, one character says, “I don’t think it’s many little girls’ dream to be a receptionist.” I don’t think it is many little girls’ dream to be an engineer, either, but to achieve other goals like owning a home and starting a family, choosing a major needs to be grounded in a realistic assessment of job opportunities.
Not only is choosing the right major crucial, choosing the right school is critical in minimizing student debt and costs for parents. The tuition for an engineering degree at the University of St. Thomas is around $132,000. A bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering technology from Globe University costs around $80,000, while tuition for an engineering degree from Minnesota State University Mankato is around $27,000. (If you are wondering, I pulled these from the 2012-13 tuition rates on the schools’ websites.) In general, the best bargain in Minnesota is public education. Critics defend private schools by pointing to the scholarships they offer, yet Minnesota state colleges and universities provide a high-quality education for a reasonable cost to all students, not only those that qualify for scholarships. Choosing a public school may save students and their parents $50,000 or more.
While the gloomy news around student loan debt clouds the internet, there is bright hope for students and parents who research majors and schools carefully. The college dream might look a little different in 2012, but it still exists, as bright and obtainable as ever.