Students weigh cost of a degree
BY ANDY TAYLOR
Looming in the back of many college students' minds is a di-lem-ma that in recent years has become a reality of higher education.¬†The problem is two-fold and the answers remain largely unresolved.
First, college is becoming more expensive. Between 2008 and 2011, the cost of tuition, room and board at public colleges and universities jumped about 9 percent, or $1,300, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.
To make matters worse, The Associated Press reported in April half of college graduates are jobless or underemployed.
This grim state of affairs begs the question: Is college really worth the investment?
Put simply, the answer is yes, Certified Public Accountant Roddey Hogan, of Tyler, said. The full answer, however, is more complicated.
"Normally, it'll give you the advantage in the short run and the long run," he said. "But you need to look at the degree you get. Otherwise you're going to get out of college and say ... 'Why can't I get a job?'"
Hogan said the value of all college degrees is not the same. Engineering majors, for example, may feel comfortable taking out large student loans because they are more likely to have higher salaries. Aspiring teachers, he said, should be more cautious.
Hogan attended Texas A&M University on the GI Bill, so he avoided most college expenses. However, as a certified public accountant, he understands the reality of long-term debt and its affect on quality of life.
Even those who find good jobs when they graduate may feel like they're competing financially with others who make the same wage but get to keep more of it, he said.
"The debt is going to make it an uneven playing field, as far as your personal life and everything that you can go ahead and do," he said.
The idea that being financially comfortable largely depends on one's career has led many students to pick their majors based on the potential job opportunities.
Pre-med freshman Nathan Baber
said he's always wanted to help people, but he chose the medical field in part because he expected it to lead to a solid career.
"When going into college, I wanted to make sure to get a degree that I was going to be able to use when I get out," he said. "Medicine is really something that's really good because really, wherever you go, whatever the economy is like, someone is always going to need a doctor."
Baber said scholarships and support from his family allowed him to avoid taking out loans, but it also influenced where he chose undergraduate school. He has friends who chose larger, more expensive schools that he said are more about the experience than the degree.
With his parents footing most of the bill, Baber said he chose a school that would bring less of a financial burden.
"That's one of the reasons why I'm at UT Tyler," he said, before adding why he avoided pricier schools, such as Baylor University. "I don't know that I would have personally felt that great about going there and then making them pay that much."
While Baber still is in the early stages of his academic career, senior Michael Clarke is nearing the end.
Clarke, a computer science major, graduates in December, when he will begin working in a leadership development program for a large industrial corporation called Textron.
Like Baber, Clarke was able to avoid accepting student loans by receiving multiple scholarships, which he said changed his entire college experience.
¬†"It was absolutely huge," he said. "Without that money, school would have been totally different with loans and having to get help from my parents. I probably wouldn't have been able to do as much in school because I would have been so worried about having to pay off loans. It was definitely a huge relief."
Clarke said he is thankful that when he starts his a career in a few months, his paycheck can go toward saving for a house, rather than to a large debt payment.
For some students, whether they have loans or not, finding a job after graduation can be more difficult than expected.
Career Services Director Marilyn Albert said the number of applicants per job has increased by 500 percent in recent years. Although the abundance of competitors may seem daunting, she said many applicants are unqualified for the positions for which they apply.
Her point underscores the need for job seekers to stand out among their peers. Often a degree is less important than what a student did while completing it, she said.
"You're investing in education, but you're really investing in yourself," she said. "I read articles about people who say, 'You know what, I spent all this money on a college degree and it didn't do anything for me.' Well, what did you do for yourself while you were in college?"
Students are more likely to succeed if they start thinking about finding a job long before they graduate, Albert said. The career services center offers tools for freshman, such as guides for choosing a major, as wells as resources that connect students with potential employers as they move toward graduation.
Hogan said students who take advantage of what college offers and make smart choices likely won't have to worry about whether their degree is a good investment. Career services are an example of what he described as the extra benefits of earning a degree.
"You learn about interacting; you learn about studying; you learn about setting goals and completing your goals," he said, adding that the fruits of the labor continue to pay off after graduation. "The college degree is like a union card. Once you get it, nobody can take it away from you."