Choosing a college or university is an investment in building a financially-secure future, and where a student goes can mean the difference in whether it takes a few years or a decade or more to pay off debt.
The think tank Third Way has released a new ranking of colleges based on economic mobility and it also shows how long it typically takes for students at each school to recoup their educational costs.
Michael Itzkowitz, senior fellow of higher education at Third Way is the author of the study “A New Way of Rating Institutions of Higher Ed: Upgrading the Economic Mobility Index.” He researched how well schools serve low-income students; the proportions of low- and moderate-income students they serve; and the economic boost students receive, or how much more students make than high school graduates in the same state with no college experience.
During his research, Itzkowitz found himself asking what the real purpose of higher education is.
“Is it to only admit the few and the fortunate or is it actually supposed to lift this generation up and leave them better than the previous and provide them with economic mobility,” he said.
Third Way ranked institutions in five tiers — one providing the most economic mobility and five the least.
At the top of his list he found several Hispanic-Serving Institutions, which have an enrollment of at least 25 percent Hispanic full-time undergraduate students.
“These institutions have been serving a diverse group of students for a very long time and ultimately delivering on the promise of higher education,” Itzkowitz said.
He also found seven Historically Black Colleges and Universities within the top 100.
“So, this is a new way of viewing the success of institutions and assessing them on the actual economic mobility that they’re providing to students,” Itzkowitz added.
The average cost to attend a U.S. college is around $35,500 per year, according to the Education Data Initiative.
Dr. Elsa Núñez, president of Eastern Connecticut State University, said the cost of higher education can be a shock for families who are used to not paying extra for their children to obtain elementary and secondary education.
“It hits parents very hard sometimes because they haven’t saved,” Núñez said. “All of a sudden, they think they’re going to get all this financial aid, but they don’t qualify for it and they’re shocked because it is a new concept that you’re going to pay for education.”
What Colleges Can Do
Itzkowitz’s research found students at Tier 1 schools typically recouped costs in around two years, while students at Tier 5 schools took more than 13 years to do so.
The University of Connecticut ranks as Tier 1. The study said it takes, on average, one year for UConn students to pay down total net costs.
Nathan Fuerst, vice president for enrollment planning and management at UConn, said the school works to ensure it’s providing financial help for students who have the highest financial needs. For these students, UConn will try its best to come as close to covering tuition as possible, he said.
Another thing that helps limit debt is for undergraduate students to finish on time, in four years rather than five or six, and to stay rather than transfer to another school and accrue more costs.
“One less year of college is significant when you think about added cost to education,” Fuerst said.
He said UConn’s retention rate for first-year students is 93% to 94% and the school was number one in the country last year among public universities for the average time it takes to get a degree, at 4.1 years.
At UConn, that starts with academic advisers who help students develop a plan and course of study to complete a degree on time. Fuerst said UConn also makes efforts to identify those who might be slipping through the cracks to help meet their goals. There is also the understanding that some students who are taking longer choose to extend their college experience, such as adding a second major.
“We’re coming at it from a lot of different ways and a lot of folks are putting a lot of energy into it in very positive ways, so I think that’s the reason for the observation that we see that students are getting out and they’re getting out on time,” Fuerst said.
Eastern Connecticut State University, which is ranked as Tier 3, also works to help students graduate on time. When Núñez became president of ECSU 17 years ago, students were taking five or six years to graduate and the school developed a plan for students to graduate in four. Now, almost 95% of Eastern students do just that.
“When you’re graduating in four years, you’re not wasting your resources,” she said.
Finding employment is also crucial to financial success and Itzkowitz said schools can help by using data to ensure students are getting skills to find available jobs. They should also review their academic programs to determine whether the curriculum matches employers’ needs in the region and readjust if they’re not.
“I know that some administrators are starting to use this data to make those types of decisions and the ones that aren’t are going to need to pretty quickly or else they are going to fall behind,” Itzkowitz said.
Institutions should also look at how they are connecting students with employers, Itzkowitz added.
At UConn, students get into the career center during their first semester. They start building a resume and a plan to attain the skills and experiences they want to have on their resume.
“Our career services office will be really good about referring them on to where those opportunities exist, be it on campus through student organizations or off-campus at internships and other job opportunities,” Fuerst said.
UConn’s job placement rate for graduates is in the 90% range within just a few months of graduating and Fuerst said that helps with paying down student debt too.
“So they’re already gainfully employed and earning money and able to immediately begin repaying their loans,” Fuerst said.
ECSU also has an employability plan and a career success center to help students explore occupations. And the school encourages internships as well as volunteer opportunities and getting involved in clubs and organizations that they can use to build a resume.
Public Investment in Education
Third Way also looked at the federal student aid institutions are receiving and showed that information along with economic mobility to give an idea of how effectively tax dollars are being used to contribute to economic mobility.
At UConn, around 27% of students receive federal Pell grants, and Fuerst said the school is working to increase the percentage.
On a federal level, President Joe Biden recently announced a plan for student loan debt relief, with more relief coming for Pell Grant recipients.
Itzkowitz said the plan addresses problems of the past and provides an opportunity to look at the future.
“If we don’t address the current problems that exist within the federal student loan system, we’re going to end back up right where we were with debt spiraling within five to 10 years from now,” Itzkowitz said.
What Students Can Do
Itzkowitz said his study shows there are many institutions that a student might not have considered, which could serve them well.
“I hope that guidance counselors, students and families understand that there are a plethora of institutions that can ultimately lead to the outcomes that they’re looking for,” Itzkowitz said.
One starting point in the search, he recommends, is the U.S. Department of Education’s College Scorecard to learn about the costs and outcomes that students typically get by attending an institution.
And Fuerst recommends that students look at the Coalition for College Access.
“It’s a group of colleges and universities that have really committed themselves to accent the affordability of higher education, so that’s a group of institutions that I think are worth a look for a lot of families who consider financing a college education an important element as they’re entering into it,” he said.
Fuerst said students and families also have to consider the value of the college degree, not only for the four years they will be in school, but over the course of a lifetime.
“What we see in these studies is that over your lifetime, you’re seeing and realizing benefits that are $1 million or more, or $1.5 million, over the course of your lifetime that you’ll benefit from versus those students who may not pursue a college education,” he said.
So it’s not just the immediate cost or the affordability to consider.
“It’s beyond that in the career that you’re going to have that’s going to benefit you throughout the course of your lifetime,” Fuerst said.