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Save us from the SAT

Photo Credit Matt Dorfman
By Jennifer Finney Boylan

BELGRADE LAKES, Me. — I WAS in trouble. The first few analogies were pretty straightforward — along the lines of “leopard is to spotted as zebra is to striped” — but now I was in the tall weeds of nuance. Kangaroo is to marsupial as the giant squid is to — I don’t know, maybe D) cephalopod? I looked up for a second at the back of the head of the girl in front of me. She had done this amazing thing with her hair, sort of like a French braid. I wondered if I could do that with my hair.

I daydreamed for a while, thinking about the architecture of braids. When I remembered that I was wasting precious time deep in the heart of the SAT, I swore quietly to myself. French braids weren’t going to get me into Wesleyan. Although, in the years since I took the test in the mid-’70s, I’ve sometimes wondered if knowing how to braid hair was actually of more practical use to me as an English major than the quadratic equation. But enough of that. Back to the analogies. Loquacious is to mordant as lachrymose is to … uh …

This was the moment I saw the terrible thing I had done, the SAT equivalent of the Hindenburg disaster. I’d accidentally skipped a line on my answer sheet, early in that section of the test. Every answer I’d chosen, each of those lines of graphite-filled bubbles, was off by one. I looked at the clock. Time was running out. I could see the Wesleyan campus fading before my eyes.

I began moving all my bubbles up one line, erasing the wrong answers. The eraser on my No. 2 pencil hadn’t been at full strength when I’d started, and now I was nearly down to the metal.

Then there was a ripping sound.

I picked up the answer sheet. Through the gaping hole in the middle of it, I could see the hair of the girl in front of me.

That braid really was a remarkable thing.

I remembered this sequence, like something from a Hitchcock film, when the College Board announced this week that it was rolling out a complete do-over of the SAT. Starting in 2016, gone will be the tristful effect of arcane vocabulary words such as “tristful” and “arcane”; gone will be the penalty for guessing wrong instead of leaving the answer blank; and gone will be the short-lived mandatory essay section, a test that reportedly places a higher value on loquaciousness than logic.

All in all, the changes are intended to make SAT scores more accurately mirror the grades a student gets in school.

The thing is, though, there already is something that accurately mirrors the grades a student gets in school. Namely: the grades a student gets in school. A better way of revising the SAT, from what I can see, would be to do away with it once and for all.

The SAT is a mind-numbing, stress-inducing ritual of torture. The College Board can change the test all it likes, but no single exam, given on a single day, should determine anyone’s fate. The fact that we have been using this test to perform exactly this function for generations now is a national scandal.

The problems with the test are well known. It measures memorization, not intelligence. It favors the rich, who can afford preparatory crash courses. It freaks students out so completely that they cannot even think.

As the mother of two former SAT takers (one a sophomore in college, the other a senior in high school awaiting the result of his applications), I can also point out another problem with the test: It usually starts around 8:30 in the morning. I don’t know if the members of the College Board have ever met a 17-year-old at that hour, but I can tell you this is not the time of day I would choose to test their ability to do anything, except perhaps make orangutan sounds.

I sympathize with college-admissions deans who want a simple, accurate measurement of student potential. But no such measurement exists, as I can attest from 25 years as an English professor. Students flower or diminish unexpectedly, in ways unpredictable and strange. One of the great joys of teaching is that moment when a student makes a leap and creates something new. The possibility of that leap is unlikely to be measured by a test involving bubble sheets.

The only way to measure students’ potential is to look at the complex portrait of their lives: what their schools are like; how they’ve done in their courses; what they’ve chosen to study; what progress they’ve made over time; how they’ve reacted to adversity. Of course colleges try to take these nuanced portraits into account, but too often they’re overshadowed by the SAT. Our children, precious, brilliant, frustrating, confused souls that they are, are more than a set of scores.

On that long-ago test day, I scratched in the last of my bubbles and barely finished on time. I’d go on to take the test again, and in the end I got lucky — despite my somewhat gruesome scores, I squeezed off the wait list and into Wesleyan.

But this is what stayed with me from that day: When at last the sour proctor gave us permission to leave, everyone leapt to their feet, everyone except me and that girl with the French braid. I noticed, as I sat there, contemplating what I thought was my newly vanished future, that the back of her head was shaking.

When I finally got up to leave, I glanced down at her face. She was weeping.

Jennifer Finney Boylan is a contributing opinion writer, a professor at Colby College and the author of “Stuck in the Middle With You: A Memoir of Parenting in Three Genders.”

19 Colleges offering up the best value in Massachusetts

With the average student loan debt hovering eerily close to $30,000, incomers want to ensure they’re receiving an education worthy of the rising costs. Kiplinger’s Personal Finance magazine understands the concern, releasing Tuesday a College Finder capable of identifying the ideal match for students searching for schools.

Users can sort through public and private universities, as well as liberal arts colleges, with the interactive tool (photographed above), by region, graduation rate, annual cost, school size, admission rate, average debt and more. After selecting schools, students can compare them side-by-side to see how they stack up on overall quality and cost.

If that’s not enough, Kiplinger also released a new slew of rankings to help users discover where the colleges boasting the most value are hiding. Among the lists are the “25 Best College Values Under $30,000.” An unsurprising, albeit unfortunate, fact is that no Massachusetts school made the list. Several, however, found their way onto the “35 Best College Values in New England” ranking.

Harvard came in at No. 2 on the list of private universities, falling only behind rival Yale — undoubtedly a tough pill to swallow. MIT then followed in its Cambridge counterpart’s footsteps, ranking third.

As for public colleges, UMass Amherst came in second, while Williams and Amherst nabbed the top two spots on the list of liberal arts colleges.

“It’s easy to overlook quality options when faced with finding the best fit from more than 4,000 degree-granting institutions,” said Robert Long, managing editor of Kiplinger.com, in a statement.

To help you break through the noise, we rounded up the “Best Value” Massachusetts schools.

– Associate Editor, BostInno

The rising cost of not going to college

For those who question the value of college in this era of soaring student debt and high unemployment, the attitudes and experiences of today’s young adults—members of the so-called Millennial generation—provide a compelling answer. On virtually every measure of economic well-being and career attainment—from personal earnings to job satisfaction to the share employed full time—young college graduates are outperforming their peers with less education. And when today’s young adults are compared with previous generations, the disparity in economic outcomes between college graduates and those with a high school diploma or less formal schooling has never been greater in the modern era.

These assessments are based on findings from a new nationally representative Pew Research Center survey of 2,002 adults supplemented by a Pew Research analysis of economic data from the U.S. Census Bureau.

The economic analysis finds that Millennial college graduates ages 25 to 321 who are working full time earn more annually—about $17,500 more—than employed young adults holding only a high school diploma. The pay gap was significantly smaller in previous generations.2 College-educated Millennials also are more likely to be employed full time than their less-educated counterparts (89% vs. 82%) and significantly less likely to be unemployed (3.8% vs. 12.2%).

Turning to attitudes toward work, employed Millennial college graduates are more likely than their peers with a high school diploma or less education to say their job is a career or a steppingstone to a career (86% vs. 57%). In contrast, Millennials with a high school diploma or less are about three times as likely as college graduates to say their work is “just a job to get [them] by” (42% vs. 14%).

The survey also finds that among employed Millennials, college graduates are significantly more likely than those without any college experience to say that their education has been “very useful” in preparing them for work and a career (46% vs. 31%). And these better educated young adults are more likely to say they have the necessary education and training to advance in their careers (63% vs. 41%).

But do these benefits outweigh the financial burden imposed by four or more years of college? Among Millennials ages 25 to 32, the answer is clearly yes: About nine-in-ten with at least a bachelor’s degree say college has already paid off (72%) or will pay off in the future (17%). Even among the two-thirds of college-educated Millennials who borrowed money to pay for their schooling, about nine-in-ten (86%) say their degrees have been worth it or expect that they will be in the future.

Of course, the economic and career benefits of a college degree are not limited to Millennials. Overall, the survey and economic analysis consistently find that college graduates regardless of generation are doing better than those with less education.3

 

But the Pew Research study also finds that on some key measures, the largest and most striking disparities between college graduates and those with less education surface in the Millennial generation.

For example, in 1979 when the first wave of Baby Boomers were the same age that Millennials are today, the typical high school graduate earned about three-quarters (77%) of what a college graduate made. Today, Millennials with only a high school diploma earn 62% of what the typical college graduate earns.

To be sure, the Great Recession and the subsequent slow recovery hit the Millennial generation particularly hard.4 Neither college graduates nor those with less education were spared. On some key measures such as the percentage who are unemployed or the share living in poverty, this generation of college-educated adults is faring worse than Gen Xers, Baby Boomers or members of the Silent generation when they were in their mid-20s and early 30s.

But today’s high school graduates are doing even worse, both in comparison to their college-educated peers and when measured against other generations of high school graduates at a similar point in their lives.

Percentage of Generation in Poverty, by Educational AttainmentFor example, among those ages 25 to 32, fully 22% with only a high school diploma are living in poverty, compared with 6% of today’s college-educated young adults. In contrast, only 7% of Baby Boomers who had only a high school diploma were in poverty in 1979 when they were in their late 20s and early 30s.

The Generations DefinedTo examine the value of education in today’s job market, the Pew Research Center drew from two complementary data sources. The first is a nationally representative survey conducted Oct. 7-27, 2013, of 2,002 adults, including 630 Millennials ages 25-32, the age at which most of these young adults will have completed their formal education and started their working lives. This survey captured the views of today’s adults toward their education, their job and their experiences in the workforce.

To measure how the economic outcomes of older Millennials compare with those of other generations at a comparable age, the Pew Research demographic analysis drew from data collected in the government’s Current Population Survey. The CPS is a large-sample survey that has been conducted monthly by the U.S. Census Bureau for more than six decades.

Specifically, Pew analysts examined CPS data collected last year among 25- to 32-year-olds and then examined data among 25- to 32-year-olds in four earlier years: Silents in 1965 (ages 68 to 85 at the time of the Pew Research survey and Current Population Survey); the first or “early” wave of Baby Boomers in 1979 (ages 59 to 67 in 2013), the younger or “late” wave of Baby Boomers in 1986 (ages 49 to 58 in 2013) and Gen Xers in 1995 (ages 33 to 48 in 2013).

The Rise of the College Graduate

While Education Levels of 25- to 32-year-olds Have Risen Dramatically Across the Generations …Today’s Millennials are the best-educated generation in history; fully a third (34%) have at least a bachelor’s degree. In contrast, only 13% of 25- to 32-year-olds in 1965—the Silent generation—had a college degree, a proportion that increased to 24% in the late 1970s and 1980s when Boomers were young adults. In contrast, the proportion with a high school diploma has declined from 43% in 1965 to barely a quarter (26%) today.

At the same time the share of college graduates has grown, the value of their degrees has increased. Between 1965 and last year, the median annual earnings of 25- to 32-year-olds with a college degree grew from $38,833 to $45,500 in 2012 dollars, nearly a $7,000 increase.

Taken together, these two facts—the growing economic return to a college degree and the larger share of college graduates in the Millennial generation—might suggest that the Millennial generation should be earning more than earlier generations of young adults.

But they’re not. The overall median earnings of today’s Millennials ($35,000) aren’t much different than the earnings of early Boomers ($34,883) or Gen Xers ($32,173) and only somewhat higher than Silents ($30,982) at comparable ages.

The Declining Value of a High School Diploma

The Widening Earnings Gap of Young Adults by Educational AttainmentThe explanation for this puzzling finding lies in another major economic trend reshaping the economic landscape: The dramatic decline in the value of a high school education. While earnings of those with a college degree rose, the typical high school graduate’s earnings fell by more than $3,000, from $31,384 in 1965 to $28,000 in 2013. This decline, the Pew Research analysis found, has been large enough to nearly offset the gains of college graduates.

The steadily widening earnings gap by educational attainment is further highlighted when the analysis shifts to track the difference over time in median earnings of college graduates versus those with a high school diploma.

In 1965, young college graduates earned $7,499 more than those with a high school diploma. But the earnings gap by educational attainment has steadily widened since then, and today it has more than doubled to $17,500 among Millennials ages 25 to 32.

Other Labor Market Outcomes

To be sure, the Great Recession and painfully slow recovery have taken their toll on the Millennial generation, including the college-educated.

Young college graduates are having more difficulty landing work than earlier cohorts. They are more likely to be unemployed and have to search longer for a job than earlier generations of young adults.

But the picture is consistently bleaker for less-educated workers: On a range of measures, they not only fare worse than the college-educated, but they are doing worse than earlier generations at a similar age.

For example, the unemployment rate for Millennials with a college degree is more than double the rate for college-educated Silents in 1965 (3.8% vs. 1.4%). But the unemployment rate for Millennials with only a high school diploma is even higher: 12.2%, or more than 8 percentage points more than for college graduates and almost triple the unemployment rate of Silents with a high school diploma in 1965.

The same pattern resurfaces when the measure shifts to the length of time the typical job seeker spends looking for work. In 2013 the average unemployed college-educated Millennial had been looking for work for 27 weeks—more than double the time it took an unemployed college-educated 25- to 32-year-old in 1979 to get a job (12 weeks). Again, today’s young high school graduates fare worse on this measure than the college-educated or their peers in earlier generations. According to the analysis, Millennial high school graduates spend, on average, four weeks longer looking for work than college graduates (31 weeks vs. 27 weeks) and more than twice as long as similarly educated early Boomers did in 1979 (12 weeks).

Similarly, in terms of hours worked, likelihood of full-time employment and overall wealth, today’s young college graduates fare worse than their peers in earlier generations. But again, Millennials without a college degree fare worse, not only in comparison to their college-educated contemporaries but also when compared with similarly educated young adults in earlier generations.

The Value of a College Major

As the previous sections show, having a college degree is helpful in today’s job market. But depending on their major field of study, some are more relevant on the job than others, the Pew Research survey finds.

To measure the value of their college studies, all college graduates were asked their major or, if they held a graduate or professional degree, their field of study. Overall, 37% say they were social science, liberal arts or education majors, a third (33%) say they studied a branch of science or engineering and a quarter (26%) majored in business. The remainder said they were studying or training for a vocational occupation.

Usefulness of Major, by Field of StudyOverall, those who studied science or engineering are the most likely to say that their current job is “very closely” related to their college or graduate field of study (60% vs. 43% for both social science, liberal arts or education majors and business majors).

At the same time, those who majored in science or engineering are less likely than social science, liberal arts or education majors to say in response to another survey question that they should have chosen a different major as an undergraduate to better prepare them for the job they wanted.

According to the survey, only about a quarter of science and engineering majors regretted their decision (24%), compared with 33% of those whose degree is in social science, liberal arts or education. Some 28% of business majors say they would have been better prepared for the job they wanted if they had chosen a different major. (Overall, the survey found that 29% say they should have chosen a different major to better prepare them for their ideal job.)

Major Regrets

College Days, ReconsideredIn addition to selecting a different major, the Pew Research survey asked college graduates whether, while still in school, they could have better prepared for the type of job they wanted by gaining more work experience, studying harder or beginning their job search earlier.

About three-quarters of all college graduates say taking at least one of those four steps would have enhanced their chances to land their ideal job. Leading the should-have-done list: getting more work experience while still in school. Half say taking this step would have put them in a better position to get the kind of job they wanted. About four-in-ten (38%) regret not studying harder, while three-in-ten say they should have started looking for a job sooner (30%) or picked a different major (29%).

When analyzed together, the survey suggests that, among these items tested, only about a quarter (26%) of all college graduates have no regrets, while 21% say they should have done at least three or all four things differently while in college to enhance their chances for a job they wanted.

The survey also found that Millennials are more likely than Boomers to have multiple regrets about their college days. Three-in-ten (31%) of all Millennials and 17% of Boomers say they should have done three or all four things differently in order to prepare themselves for the job they wanted. Some 22% of Gen Xers say the same.

The remainder of this report is organized in the following way. The first chapter uses Census Bureau data to compare how Millennials ages 25 to 32 with varying levels of education are faring economically. It also examines how economic outcomes by level of education have changed over time by comparing the economic fortunes of Millennials with those of similarly educated Gen Xers, Baby Boomers and Silents at comparable ages.

The second chapter is based exclusively on data from a recent Pew Research Center survey. It examines how all adults assess the value of their education in preparing them for the workforce and specifically how these views differ by levels of education.

About the Data

Findings in this report are based mainly on data from: (1) The Current Population Survey and (2) A new Pew Research Center survey conducted in October 2013.

Data on Labor Market and Economic Outcomes: The labor market and economic data are derived from the Current Population Survey (CPS). Conducted jointly by the U.S. Census Bureau and the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the CPS is a monthly survey of approximately 55,000 households and is the source of the nation’s official statistics on unemployment. The CPS is nationally representative of the civilian noninstitutionalized population. This analysis uses the Annual Social and Economic Supplement collected in March of each year. The March CPS features an expanded sample size (about 75,000 households in 2013) and is the basis for the widely noted Census Bureau’s annual Income, Poverty, and Health Insurance Coverage estimates reported each fall (DeNavas-Walt, Proctor and Smith ,2013). The data analysis used the University of Minnesota Population Center’s integrated version of the March CPS (King, Ruggles, Alexander, Flood, Genadek, Schroeder, Trampe, and Vick ,2010).

Survey Data: The Pew Research survey was conducted October 7-27, 2013, with a nationally representative sample of 2,002 adults age 18 and older, including 982 adults ages 18 to 34. A total of 479 interviews were completed with respondents contacted by landline telephone and 1,523 with those contacted on their cellular phones. In order to increase the number of 25- to 34-year-old respondents in the sample, additional interviews were conducted with that cohort. Data are weighted to produce a final sample that is representative of the general population of adults in the United States. Survey interviews were conducted in English and Spanish under the direction of Princeton Survey Research Associates International. Margin of sampling error is plus or minus 2.7 percentage points for results based on the total sample at the 95% confidence level.

  1. The Millennial generation includes those born after 1980 (which would include adults ages 18 to 32 in 2013). Unless otherwise noted in the text, references in this report to the economic outcomes of Millennials are based only on those ages 25 to 32, a period in which most young adults have completed their formal education and have entered the workforce.
  2. Throughout this report, references to those who are “high school graduates” or who have a diploma refer to those who have attained a high school diploma or its equivalent, such as a General Educational Development (GED) certificate.
  3. For a detailed look at economic outcomes by education, see the Pew Research Center blog post “The growing economic clout of the college educated” by Richard Fry.
  4. For a detailed look at the impact of the Great Recession on various demographic groups, see the Pew Research Center report “How the Great Recession Has Changed Life in America”

Comparing Colleges’ Net Prices Is Tricky, in More Ways Than One

Most students choose a college based in large part on what it’s going to cost them. So when the federal government started collecting and publishing average net prices by income group at individual institutions, consumer-information advocates cheered. People would be able to see which colleges were most affordable for families like theirs.

But as my colleague Soo Oh and I report here, the numbers don’t actually allow for good comparisons when it comes to wealthy colleges with generous need-based aid.

Those colleges tend to look at income in two ways that can produce very different numbers for the same family. And in reporting net-price data to the government, institutions are not all categorizing students in the same way. Some put them into income groups using the federal measure of income, while others use the institutional figure. So what looks like an apples-to-apples comparison of colleges’ affordability really isn’t. Read more about that here.

Now that the data exist, however, they cry out for such comparisons. One question that has emerged is how low-income students can possibly pay as much as they appear to be at some elite colleges. But the confusion about who goes in which category isn’t the only problem with the government’s net-price-by-income data. The averages by income group are based only on first-time, full-time freshmen who receive federal financial aid—grants, loans, or Work-Study. For public colleges, only in-state students are counted.

At many colleges, all of that provides a good representation of what students actually pay, at least for those who come in as freshmen and enroll full time.

But for elite colleges, the averages are less reliable. Smaller shares of students there receive federal aid, in part because many of them are from wealthy families. But others who might not get a cent of federal aid the colleges still consider needy. Even if those students get big price breaks from their institutions, they won’t show up in the data.

Now the averages should pull in most of the elite colleges’ low-income students, because they would qualify for federal Pell Grants. The data would not, however, include low-income international students who are getting institutional but not federal aid.

At higher income levels, the data are much less comprehensive. The only federal financial aid higher-income students usually get is student loans. Some wealthy colleges include loans in students’ financial-aid packages, but others don’t. Some students borrow; many do not. That means only a fraction of higher-income students are represented in the published net prices, which may or may not match the actual averages.

So what proportion of elite colleges’ student bodies are the government’s average prices based on? In other words, what share of students receive some form of federal financial aid?

The Chronicle calculated the percentage of first-time, full-time freshmen whose net prices count toward the government averages at each institution in the Top 25 Liberal-Arts Colleges and the Top 25 National Universities, as ranked by U.S. News & World Report (minus the military-service academies). Of the group, Grinnell College had the largest share of its freshman class represented: 62 percent. The share was smallest at Princeton University: 16 percent. When we averaged the percentages of all the colleges, it came to about 40 percent.

So even if all elite colleges categorized students into income groups in the same way, the government’s net-price data still wouldn’t give us a very good sense of what most of their students are paying.