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Lamenting the High Cost of a 4-Year College Degree

Updated: Apr 21, 2021

Recently, I had a conversation with a successful young man in his mid 20s who recently graduated from college. He was lamenting the high cost of a bachelor’s degree. He conceded that for some programs, such as nursing, engineering, and other STEM field majors, pursuing a college degree makes perfect sense. At the same time, he wondered how a person pursing a degree in elementary education, studio art, sports management, marketing, communication studies, or other liberal arts degrees would be able to earn enough money to pay for their high student loans upon graduation. Camilo Maldonado, co-founder and CEO of has shown how student loan debt, now more than $1.7 billion (1), has out-paced auto loan debt and credit card debt in the USA! (2). As families and students begin to prepare for the college search, talking about paying for college needs to be a part of the conversation.

We have all seen the articles about the crippling costs of a college degree and the soaring student loan debt in this country. Politicians debate about solutions while universities lobby for more government funds to meet their budget demands. As costs continue to climb, families are left to negotiate the bottom line in the same way they might negotiate with a car salesman the final deal of a car purchase wondering whether or not their investment will pay off in the future. Unfortunately, the difficulty young college graduates have had in securing a well-paying job during the recession of the early 2000s and during the devastating economic consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic have led to skepticism concerning the return on investment of a 4-year college degree.

During our conversation, that young man pointed out that not so long ago, people “worked their way up” in various industries by learning from others through apprenticeship programs, formal or informal. His uncles and aunts are some of his perfect examples. They are very successful in careers they love and are making a handsome living wage even though they never graduated from college. But as the experienced CEOs retire and opportunities become available, those same jobs now require applicants to have at least a 4-year degree. Kate Morgan refers to this as Degree Inflation (3). It is clear that in today’s employment climate, having a 4-year degree can boost your ability to get a job or can boost your ability for upward mobility within your area of expertise.

So, what does that mean for the young people who have aspirations for a liberal arts degree such as the ones that young man spoke of? How do those students exit college without being saddled with insurmountable debt so that they are freed up to make the kinds of differences in their communities and careers once they graduate? While we are hopeful for a strong economic recovery, many families are still reeling from the financial uncertainties created by lost jobs, an unpredictable economy, or other life events experienced during the worldwide pandemic, a tumultuous year of 2020-2021. A 4-year liberal arts degree may not for everyone. There are a number of 2-year programs at community or technical schools that prepare people well for a wide range of careers. But if a 4-year degree is the plan you want to pursue for yourself or for your children, it is important to explore all the ways within your reach to pay for college without going into debt.

Navigating the college landscape has become increasingly difficult. Starting the conversation about the finances needed to pay for school can be hard, but it is essential. Parents can initiate a conversation with their teenage children laying out clear expectations about how much they plan to contribute towards their college education. Together, they can examine all the elements associated with the cost of an education, such as tuition, room & board, books, fees, and travel between and home and school especially if plane tickets are a part of the equation. Likewise, examining options for reducing costs, i.e., getting college credit for AP, IB, or PSEO, starting at a community college with a plan to transfer to a 4-year school later, living at home, and/or working while in high school and college to help pay for school are essential. Every college provides a government mandated Net Price Calculator (4) on their Admissions webpages. As you add colleges to your list, use this tool to help you compare costs between schools to which you wish to apply.

Many colleges offer merit- and need-based scholarships, lowering costs substantially. However, rarely are students given a full ride. Many expenses may still not be covered. Additionally, the Expected Family Contribution (EFC) (5) may dictate the amounts of need based aid a college is willing to give to a family. Some families would rather their children take out a loan rather than dipping into their retirement saving. The average student loan is $36,000 (6), and every year, that average increases. If you plan to go to graduate school, this number can increase even more.

Families revert to student loans in the same way that we all expect to get a loan when purchasing a home. Well-known author and financial expert Anthony ONeal advises against students taking out a student loan. He gives eleven tips to students and families about how to pay for college (7) without taking out a loan. Completing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) (8) every year is at the top of the list. He also suggests a number of cost-cutting actions that could save thousands of dollars, such as, living at home or off campus rather than in the dorms, working while going to school on or off campus, starting at a less expensive community college with a plan to transfer later, and choosing colleges within your budget. Whether you decide to take out a loan or not, these cost saving tips are worth exploring. Having a plan is the first step in determining the best strategies to reduce the cost of a college education allowing you to realize your dream without breaking the bank!

Kimberly J. Koffi is an Independent Educational Consultant and founder of Amber Lights Educational Consulting, LLC. She worked as a college counselor and international student advisor for 9 years at a college prep school and for 6 years in a local university as an assistant director for international student and scholar services prior to starting her own business helping families with the college search process.

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