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Higher Education Value

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Today is a good day to discuss “value” in higher education. Why today?

Well, today is the day that the Ivy League releases admission verdicts for the great sea of applicants who have waited breathlessly for so long to see if they could get in. As with every year this time, there will be elation, disappointment and unresolved decisions. Those unresolved decisions belong to students who have been wait-listed, assigned to the purgatory of college admissions.


Along with the good news for those admitted will come financial aid packages, many of which will include loans. The loans provide the means to pay for elite educations, but they also provide for student debt. Loans must be repaid, and although no payments are due while a student is enrolled, the reality of paying back those loans becomes very real shortly after graduation.

Many argue today about the value of college. Is it a requirement for happiness and success in life? As I’ve noted in past articles here, a college education is certainly not required to be happy and successful. However, college can open doors that lead to a satisfying and meaningful life. Is there a middle ground, then, between an education that results in significant long-term debt and a non-college-degree life? In other words, are there colleges that offer value for those seeking formal higher education?

Fortunately, the answer is “Yes.” Just the other day, I received SmartAsset’s list of 2019 Best Value Colleges. The evaluation factors include tuition, living costs, scholarship and grant offerings, retention rate and starting salary. This, they say, enables you to find the colleges that give you the largest return on your investment.

Check the Methodology

If you follow higher education in the media, you will encounter a lot of these “Best” listings. Being the skeptic that I am, I always want to know how the judgments are made, so I always look for statements of methodology. I look for the reasoning behind rankings. Thus, here’s the methodology behind SmartAsset’s Best Value presentation:

Earning a college degree can increase your skill set, job prospects and net worth. But with rising college costs, where you choose to get that degree from can make a big difference. SmartAsset looked at five factors to determine the best value colleges and universities: tuition, student living costs, scholarship and grant offerings, retention rate and starting salary.

To capture the true cost of attending a school, we included the tuition (using in-state tuition for public schools where applicable), student living costs (including room and board, books, supplies, transportation and other personal expenses) and the average scholarships and grants offered to students of the school.

To capture what students get in return, we looked at student retention rate (the percent of students that re-enrolled at the institution the following year) and the average starting salary.

We gave 25 percent weighting to starting salary, tuition and living costs. We then gave 12.5 percent weighting to scholarships and grants, as well as student retention rate, to come up with a ranking of schools in our analysis. With that ranking, we created an index (a sort of grading on a curve) where the number one school was assigned 100.

There is one rub, though, and that is the task of getting into these top-rated schools. For example, look up the acceptance rates of SmartAsset’s Top 10:

1. Harvey Mudd College

2. Massachusetts Institute of Technology

3. California Institute of Technology

4. United States Military Academy West Point, NY

5. United States Naval Academy

6. Stanford University

7. Colorado School of Mines

8. United States Air Force Academy

9. Carnegie Mellon University

10. Stevens Institute of Technology

The spread of acceptance rates in this group is heavily weighted toward the “elite” end of the scale. For example, Stanford weighs in at five percent, MIT is at seven percent and Caltech is at eight percent. Also, you may not care for a military career. That would de-emphasize West Point, and the Air Force and Naval Academies. Harvey Mudd denies 85 percent of its applicants and Carnegie Mellon accepts a mere 22 percent.

There is some good news among these Top 10. Stevens Institute of Technology accepts 44 percent of its applicants. Of course, you would be looking to pursue an engineering career and, obviously, be willing to go to school in Hoboken, N.J. (just kidding, no offense to Hobokeners). Also, the Colorado School of Mines accepts 38 percent of its applicants, but, once again, career focus is likely to be a limiting factor for many.

SmartAsset’s presentation is quite helpful and easy to use to search for the version of “value” you’re seeking. As they note:

Wondering where you can get a good college education for a decent price? SmartAsset’s interactive map highlights the best value schools. These are the institutions where you get the most bang for your buck. Zoom between state maps and the national map to see the top schools in the country or by state.

Map Tool Helps

The interactive map provides a lot of valuable information. You can search the United States by the categories of Best Value, Starting Salary, College Tuition and Student Living Costs. This is an interesting and easy-to-use tool to get at least some quantifiable grasp on how your investment in higher education can pay you back.

You may have noted in SmartAsset’s methodology that they weight starting salary at 25 percent of their overall evaluation criteria. Coincidentally, the same day that I received SmartAsset’s best value information, I also received Zippia.com’s Best City for Jobs in Each State, which includes job listings, some with very impressive starting salaries.

I love to combine information for composite results. In this case, combining SmartAsset’s and Zippia’s data could possibly guide you to an excellent return on your college investment and then top it off by guiding you to the location where your job possibilities are greatest.

I use the word “possibly” because there are just too many variables involved to declare a high likelihood of getting the best college value, graduating, and then fairly easily landing a high-salary job. However, adding more data points to your post-graduation plans may be able to improve your chances.

Back to Zippia. Their Top 10 cities are:

1. Eureka, Mo.

2. Campton Hills, Ill.

3. Bothell East, Wash.

4. The Pinery, Colo.

5. North Potomac, Md.

6. Ewa Gentry, Hawaii

7. West University Place, Texas

8. Sherwood, Ore.

9. Babylon, N.Y.

10. Greentree, N.J.

How did Zippia arrive at these job havens?

We looked at the PUMS data from 2012 to 2017, and compared the year over year numbers for the following:

Unemployment rates

Median income

Home to income ratio

We also looked at the current rate of unemployment and current income levels when determining the ranking.

We then ranked every city in all 50 states from best to worst for jobs to calculate the best city in each state for jobs.

I have to admit that I’m unfamiliar with most of the cities on that list, but, hey, I don’t get out all that much. Seriously, don’t be discouraged from seeking job prospects just because, for example, The Pinery, Colo., doesn’t boast an NFL team. Sometimes gold doesn’t glisten, to coin a strange philosophical phrase.

Zippia provides mini-profiles of the Top 10 cities, along with some representative pictures, which you may find attractive. The really valuable feature here, however, is the expanded 51 ranked city listings, each with a link to a page of current job openings.

Since I mentioned The Pinery, Colo., above, I clicked on its link and was taken to a page filled with job listings, some of which offer six-figure estimated salaries. Now that’s what I call helpful!

So, keep in mind that there’s a lot of insightful information out there for you, whether you’re searching for colleges or employment after college. In fact, even if you’re not thinking about college at all and aren’t opposed to relocating, the Zippia listings could be one way to take your life to the next chapter. Study up!