Busting the Myth that Better Costs More in Higher Ed

The notion that “better costs more” is inherent in our culture, and unfortunately, in the way many people view higher education. There is a misconception that to obtain a high-quality bachelor’s degree, one must pay more for it—a notion leading many students to forgo applying to top schools, and in some cases, forgo college completely.

And this is a problem—not just for those individuals, whose job prospects are reduced, along with their long-term earning potential, but also for the country’s economic stability.

Take a recent article in The Atlantic, for example, which discusses a research paper by Caroline M. Hoxby and Christopher Avery on the educational attainment gap for top-performing students in the bottom U.S. wealth quartile. Derek Thompson writes that some of the country’s “‘low-income high-achieving’” students come from the poorest 25 percent of families, but their grades and SAT scores place them in the top 10—or even top 5 percent—of all students.” He affirms that getting these students into the best colleges would “increase social mobility, raise national productivity, increase taxable income, shrink our deficit, cut income-support payments…you get the point.”

And it’s not just low-income students that aren’t realizing their potential, but those from the middle classes, as discussed in an article in The Chronicle of Higher Education. Because most families depend on need-based college aid, and because those calculations are based on the family’s finances from the previous year, many applicants don’t find out what each college will cost until shortly before they have to make an enrollment decision. This uncertainty can lead to a compulsion to play it safe when applying to schools.

Of course, the reality is that highly selective schools do charge higher tuition fees. And it’s also true that cost is, and will continue to be, a driving force in where students enroll.

With that said, a great education can be a reality for all students regardless of income, if one takes into consideration certain factors about financial aid and the educational landscape.

For low-income families, the issue is often one of financial awareness, which suggests the need for improved outreach on the part of post-secondary institutions and college access programs. Unfortunately, as Thomas states, while a critical mass of top-performing students live in the country’s denser urban areas, the “poor students who don’t apply to selective schools are more likely to be scattered across the country,” and thus, aren’t surrounded by the necessary support networks. Additionally, most high-achieving, low-income students do not apply to selective schools, despite their potential for hefty financial-aid packages. The researchers propose networks of alumni that serve as proxy admissions officers, as well as innovative uses of social media and digital advertising to encourage individuals to apply to schools where they can thrive—and not just those they think they can afford.

Achieving an affordable, high-quality education may also be about changing one’s mindset from a short- to long-term outlook.

Cost-benefit research implemented by TDF Ventures in 2012-2013 found that for the 1,248 colleges/universities studied, the 30-year net rate of return (ROI) (total salary over 30 years minus what they would have earned as a high school graduate, and the cost of college) automatically increased across the board, when transferring from a community college. In other words, the cost of college was reduced, but with the benefit of the extra income resulting from having completed college at the four-year institution. And, colleges on the highest end of the cost scale ($180K – $200K +)—more “selective” institutions—more often yielded a positive ROI.

Additionally, although many students believe they will graduate in four years, federal IPEDS datasuggest only 40.6 percent will do so. Selective schools tend to admit students who are more prepared to succeed academically, and therefore, more likely to graduate in a four-year time period. An institution may offer a lower tuition rate, but it may not be cheaper in the long-term, when taking into account the extra years potentially needed to earn a bachelor’s degree.

It’s time to change the way we think about education—now, and in the long-term. With proper assistance and an eye toward the future, high-quality degrees can be affordable for every student