Where's The "Value" in Higher Education?

Now and then, in light of the kinds of things that are happening in or world these days, I will say to my wife, "You know, nothing in the news these days would surprise me." I'm talking about the kinds of things we see routinely on TV, in the newspaper, and on the Web.

I joke with her and mention UFOs, space aliens, the discovery of 12-million-year-old "footprints," 10 feet of snow in two days, etc. Those kinds of things.

I may have to revise my imperturbable approach to news, though. This past week, a series of press releases actually did surprise me. As one example, I'll mention this one, which I posted as a thread on the College Confidential discussion forum:

Syracuse University will be one of the most expensive colleges in the US next year, which said, in part:

SU now joins Ivy League schools, including Brown University or Yale University, with an expected total cost of attendance of more than $70,000. While most students won't pay that full price because they receive federal financial aid or merit scholarships, experts say SU has to be careful with tuition hikes beyond this threshold.

"That's a lot of money," said Donald Heller, a tuition expert and provost of the University of San Francisco.

In interviews with The Daily Orange, higher education experts said a $3,300 tuition premium that will be tacked onto SU's new undergraduate costs next year is a major component of why costs are crossing the $70,000 mark. The premium is part of a $100 million fundraising initiative called Invest Syracuse. ...

Granted, that news is not as spectacular as a report of a fleet of orange globes hovering over Phoenix, but, frankly, it shocked me. It also had an impact on some of CC's forum members, one of whom responded:

That's why we're backing down on Syracuse. This craziness will only end when families step back and say no more. Families buy into the hype and set their kids (or themselves) up for major debt for years to come. No school is worth 70,000/year--Ivy league or otherwise. If Syracuse had gone up tracking inflation, its COA would be tens of thousands less. And I'm not singling Syracuse out--they're all crazy like this. Syracuse was my daughter's reach--not a traditional academic reach, but a financial reach. We expected her to get in, but if it wasn't affordable (by our standards, not hers), she wouldn't be going. She has been accepted, but she won't be attending.

Beautifully stated, and emphasizing the points I frequently preach here in my blog: the dangers of crippling student loan debt and the absurd, irresponsible rise in higher education costs. At least with those hovering orange Phoenix globes, one can choose to ignore them since they have no direct bearing on one's personal -- or financial -- life.

Which brings me to a pleasant surprise. Among the many releases and solicitations for blog ideas that rolled in this week was this one:

SmartAsset's Fourth Annual Study Reveals Best Value Colleges

At first glance, the name of that study organization inspires a different kind of reaction, one that doesn't suggest intelligent management of finances. Anyway, I thought it was a nice coincidence that, in the same week, I learned about both a ridiculously expensive college (which is not alone at their level of expense, by the way) and a nifty "best-value" survey.

So, since I've already shared one of my inbox's updates here, I thought I would share this other complementary one with you. Here are some highlights. You may want to examine the entire study for some perspective on how college sticker prices can contrast with out-of-pocket expense.

Oh, one more thing: I have no connection whatever with SmartAsset. I have no personal gain at stake in writing about their study. in fact, they may not even know I'm mentioning them here unless the wonderful world of Search Engine Optimization delivers an alert to them. So, with that caveat, here are some excerpts to hopefully pique your interest:

Best Value Colleges

Wondering where you can get a good college education for a decent price? SmartAsset's interactive map [click the "Best Value Colleges link, above, to see the cool 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.

Here are the Top 10 best-value schools:

RankSchoolCityAvg. Scholarships and GrantsAvg. Starting SalaryCollege Tuition *Student Living CostsStudent Retention RateCollege Education Value Index
1Massachusetts Institute of TechnologyCambridge, MA$41,674$81,500$46,704$16,54698%100.00
2California Institute of TechnologyPasadena, CA$36,632$78,800$45,390$18,08198%89.73
3Stanford UniversityStanford, CA$47,782$73,300$46,320$18,15798%88.47
4Harvey Mudd CollegeClaremont, CA$33,895$81,000$50,649$18,70698%86.80
5Princeton UniversityPrinceton, NJ$44,128$69,800$43,450$17,71098%81.67
6Harvard UniversityCambridge, MA$48,195$69,200$45,278$19,12297%80.45
7Georgia Institute of Technology-Main CampusAtlanta, GA$12,274$68,100$12,204$13,57697%78.97
8SUNY Maritime CollegeThroggs Neck, NY$7,547$71,600$7,809$16,51685%75.62
9Yale UniversityNew Haven, CT$48,126$66,800$47,600$18,84599%75.57
10University of PennsylvaniaPhiladelphia, PA$43,856$68,100$49,536$17,26498%74.59

* Where applicable, used in-state tuition (residents of the same state as a college, qualify for lower in-state tuition)

And, in case you're wondering about how the study was done:


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% weighting to starting salary, tuition and living costs. We then gave 12.5% 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.

This study page also includes some very helpful information. There's a student loan calculator where you can add your existing student loan details to calculate monthly payments and your student loan amortization over time. This can be shocking to see.

According to SmartAsset, the national average student loan debt is $28,400. That translates into an ongoing monthly payment of $297 (!).

That monthly bill easily could be used, instead, to buy a nice car, the debt for which may, at most, last five years or so, not a decade. The calculator page notes: "The total lifetime costs of your student loans [@ $28,400] would be $35,583 paid over 10 years."

That's just for $28,400 of loan debt. I mentioned in a recent post here that I know a young woman who is carrying around $50,000 in loan debt for her degree from an online university. Her monthly payment is about $500! I know my readers get exhausted hearing my warnings about loan debt, but there's a reason for my concern. So, check this calculator before you "sign on the lines which are dotted," to paraphrase Alec Baldwin in Glengarry Glen Ross.

Bottom line: If you're looking for value in higher education, it can come in many forms. From a sheerly monetary perspective, you may need some tools to help you find it. That's where SmartAsset's study and interactive map might give you some informational value. Click and learn.


Be sure to check out all my college-related articles at College Confidential.