Monday numbers: The cost of higher education and economic value of community colleges

Monday numbers: The cost of higher education and economic value of community colleges

- in Higher Ed, Top Story

Worried about the economy and rattled by a global pandemic that upended the traditional university experience, a growing percentage of university students worry higher education is no longer worth the cost.

That anxiety is one factor in falling admissions at some UNC campuses, leading system leaders to scramble for solutions: Raising the cap on admissions from out-of-state students, simplifying the transfer of credits between institutions, launching new investments in online education, and renewing an emphasis on the value of the state’s community college system.

Tuition at community colleges is less expensive, and these institutions offer greater flexibility and accessibility.

But how well do community colleges really do on that buzzy business metric increasingly making its way into higher education discussions: “return on investment”?

A new report commissioned by the American Association of Community Colleges suggests the schools are among the best values in higher education today.

The North Carolina Community College System is searching for its next president. Its last full-time leader, Peter Hans, ascended to the presidency of the UNC System last year. As a former head of the state’s community college system, Hans has repeatedly discussed the importance of understanding the benefits, mostly financial, students can expect for what they and their families spend when getting a degree within the UNC system.

The financial emphasis unsettles those who worry that programs in the humanities, performing arts and social work might lose funding or even be eliminated because graduates of those programs don’t tend make as much money as students in some other majors.

But the emphasis on return on investment (often shortened to ROI) has been welcomed by many members of the board of governors and individual trustees at the individual universities who would like to see them run more like private businesses with an emphasis on credentialing students for higher-paying employment.

This week, a by-the-numbers look at research on student anxiety over the value of their degrees and the value of America’s community colleges.

(Sources: Three polls released last year from New America/Third Way/Global Strategy Group on student attitudes toward higher education since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic and a new study released this month, “The Economic Value of America’s Community Colleges.”)

65 – Percentage of current college students who said higher education is no longer worth the cost to students, according to a poll last year by New America

The percentages were even higher among Black students (68%) and Latinx students (71%). Among high school seniors polled, it was 64%.

79 – Percentage of current college students who said they were concerned about getting any type of job once they graduate, because of the effects of the pandemic and economic recession. Among Latinx students, it was 80%.

67 – Percentage of current college students who said they were concerned about paying their tuition bill. Among Latinx college students, it was 72%. Among current college students who are also caregivers, it was 80%.

62 – Percentage of current college students who said they were concerned about paying their non-education related bills. That number was 58% among Black students and 68% among Latinx students. Among students who are also caregivers it was 80%.

58 – Number of campuses in the North Carolina Community College system, serving all 100 counties in the state

$9,600 – Average increase in annual earnings by associate degree graduates from an American community college, as compared to those with a high school diploma or equivalent working in the U.S., according to a new study entitled  “The Economic Value of America’s Community Colleges”)

16.9 – Average percentage of annual return on student investment in their American community college education

10.6 – U.S. stock market’s average annual 30-year percentage return

$4.60 – Estimate of the average return, in the form of future earnings, the average American community college graduate sees “for every dollar students invest in education at America’s community colleges in the form of out-of-pocket expenses and forgone time and money”

$6.80 – Estimated cumulative value of the return to taxpayers for every dollar of public money invested in America’s community colleges, over the course of the students’ working lives

$1.3 trillion – Estimated value of social benefits to society from American community colleges

Though nearly $894 billion of this estimate is from added student income, the benefits go beyond the strictly financial. Education is statistically correlated with a variety of lifestyle changes that result in savings to society, according to the report.

“Healthcare savings include avoided m  edical costs associated with smoking, alcohol dependence, obesity, drug abuse, and depression,” the report reads. “Justice system savings include avoided costs to the government and society due to less judicial activity. Income assistance savings include reduced welfare and unemployment claims.”

$898.5 billion – Estimated additional income for the national economy generated by community college graduates

4.1 – Percentage of the total gross domestic product (GDP) this represents — a figure nearly as large as the entire domestic construction industry