Kids, ignore your elders: college is worth it

CollegeOld folks can offer wisdom about many things, but you might not want to trust them when it comes to 21st century economics.

I’m hearing too many older people espouse the view that college degrees aren’t as valuable these days because more people have them. They need an Econ 101 review. It’s true that the price or value of something may drop if the supply increases—but only if the demand for that thing does not increase as well.

In the case of college degrees, demand has risen dramatically. Part of that is because so many jobs that didn’t require degrees have been made obsolete by technology or been outsourced overseas. (When Grandpa says he knows lots of people who made good livings without post-high-school training, ask him what they did—and if those factories and union jobs still exist.)

But employers are pickier as well, using college degrees as a screening device for jobs that in the past didn’t require them.

It’s true that incomes for college graduates dropped during recent economic hard times and unemployment rose. But the situation was a lot worse for folks without a college degree, according to a Pew Charitable Trust report released yesterday.

Back to supply and demand: The demand for post-secondary educations helped push up the net cost of college during the 2000s. The College Board says the net price of college tuition (the sticker price minus financial aid) rose 75% between 2002 and 2011.

But now demand seems to be softening, according to a Moody’s Investor Service report, thanks to a tough economy and a smaller pool of high school students. As a result, more schools are freezing tuition costs or at least holding down the increases and offering more financial aid. That’s good news for those heading off to college in coming years.

None of this means a college degree is worth any price. Too many families are overdosing on debt to get educations they really can’t afford. Getting a good value also requires college students to pick their majors carefully, since some degrees are worth a lot more than others.

But college degrees are and will remain all but essential in the 21st century if you want to get ahead financial, or even just remain in the middle class. That wasn’t true in Grandpa’s day, but it’s true now.

Why college is more expensive now

Dear Liz: Thank you for your response to the reader who complained that college students who received student loans were getting a handout. You did a great job of highlighting the challenges today’s students face, but you didn’t talk about the main underlying cause. This is the defunding of state universities by state governments. In Oregon, for example, the state has gone from funding over 50% of the costs to current funding of 6%. The difference has been made up by tuition hikes and increasing the proportion of out-of-state (and foreign) students who pay much higher tuition. This is part of the reason that students are crowded out of classes. In Oregon, the medical school found it was better off giving up all state aid and going it alone. Other universities in Oregon are considering taking the same action. Schools founded with state money and supported for years with tax money will no longer be operated for Oregon students. They will be more like private schools, perhaps moving out of the reach of middle-class students. So the answer to the reader is that she did get government help to get through school, help that is now curtailed so students have to finance it themselves.

Answer: The reader didn’t specify what type of college she attended. But the withdrawal of state government funding in recent years has definitely made public college educations more expensive for many students. Meanwhile, many private schools have expanded their financial and merit aid budgets so that some students can attend a private college at a lower net cost than what they would pay for a public school.

Student loans aren’t handouts

Dear Liz: I am increasingly annoyed by the entitlement attitude of today’s students. Why should the taxpayers (me) pay to educate somebody else’s children? I remember when there was no such thing as a student loan. If I wanted to go to college and didn’t have the money for tuition, I delayed starting college until I had worked for a year and saved up the money. Many of my friends did this, as did I. Now these kids stand around with their hands out looking for somebody to bring them their education on a silver platter. I wish you would say something about this in your column.

Answer: Let’s start with the obvious, which is that an education costs a heck of a lot more than it did when you were in college.

The College Board reports that a student attending an in-state, four-year public university needs to budget an average of $22,261 to pay for the 2012-13 year. Which means the total cost to get an undergraduate degree would be about $90,000, assuming he or she can get all the required courses in four years (something that’s increasingly difficult because of state budget cuts in education).

Not to put too fine a point on it, but there aren’t many jobs these days that would enable someone (particularly someone without a college degree) to save the full cost of a college education in a single year. Even someone who started out with two years of community college would need to budget about $8,000 for each of those years, according to the College Board, and the total cost of a four-year degree would still be around $60,000. Some people would pay less if they got a lot of financial aid or lived at home, but any way you cut it, the tab is much, much higher than it has been in decades past.

Something else has changed since you were a student, and that’s the importance of having a college education if you want to have a decent financial life and remain in the middle class. In your day, people without college educations — even those without high school diplomas — could find well-paying jobs. Those jobs have increasingly been phased out by technology or they’ve gone overseas. The manufacturing and technical jobs that remain often require at least some post-secondary education. Having a college degree is what having a high school diploma used to be — an essential entry-level credential in many fields.

Our nation and our economy need educated workers if we’re to be competitive in a global economy. It also would help to have an expanding pool of well-paid workers to pay taxes toward things like roads, defense, police and fire protection and Social Security, from which you presumably benefit.

This is why governments promote post-secondary education with a relatively small amount of grants for the needy, and a relatively large amount of loans for everyone else. The first federal student loans were part of the National Defense Education Act of 1958; today, most students borrow at least some portion of their education costs.

You see, most kids (and their parents) aren’t standing around waiting for a handout. Most financial aid these days comes in the form of loans, which have to be paid back. These loans aren’t necessarily cheap — the rate on a Stafford student loan is 6.8%, while graduate and parent PLUS loans have 7.9% rates (plus a 4% origination fee that’s deducted from each disbursement).

If students or their parents default, the government can garnish their wages, seize their tax refunds, take a chunk of their Social Security checks and trash their credit. There is no statute of limitations on federal student loans and only rare relief in Bankruptcy Court, so borrowers can be pursued to their graves for what they owe.

Yes, many families overspend on education and overdose on student loans. The majority, however, graduate with a reasonable amount of debt (about $26,000 on average) that can be repaid from their now-higher earnings. Student loans aren’t a handout — they’re an investment in both the graduate and our economy.

Saving for college: what parents need to know

I’m giving a talk this morning to fellow parents about saving for college. I’ll be covering three important topics: why you need to save, how much you need to save and where you should put the money you’re saving.

Why you need to save

A college degree, or at least some post-high school training, is already important if you want your kids to remain in the middle class. That’s only going to become more true in coming years. Read “Should your kid skip college?” for more.

If you can save, you probably should. Financial aid formulas will expect you to have put aside at least something if you’re middle income or above. The idea that saving will hurt your kid’s chances for financial aid is the #1 myth I address is “3 college myths that will cost you.” (You also should read the second part of this series, “Costly college myths part 2.”)

To learn more about financial aid, visit FinAid.org and try out its estimated family contribution calculator. Another good site: TheCollegeSolution.com.

How much you need to save

The answer: A horrifyingly large amount if you expect to pay the whole tab. Even if you start when your child is born, you’d need to save:

  • Nearly $500 a month to pay for a public college
  • Nearly $1,000 a month to pay for a typical private college that currently costs $40,000 a year
  • Nearly $1,500 a month to pay for an elite private school such as Harvard or USC.

If you don’t start saving until your child is older, you’d need to put aside even more to cover the entire bill for tuition, books, room, board and living costs.

(A note: Harvard, like other Ivy League colleges, has committed to capping the cost for education. Families earning $65,000 pay no tuition. Families with incomes between $65,000 and $150,000 will contribute from 0 to 10 percent of income, depending on individual circumstances.  Significant financial aid also is available for families above those income ranges.)

Most families can’t save enough to pay the whole tab. But anything you can save likely will reduce your child’s need to take on debt. You can play with the numbers using SavingForCollege.com’s college savings calculator.

One thing you need to keep in mind: retirement savings must come first. Nobody will loan you the money you need to retire. But try to put aside at least $25 to $50 a month for college, and increase it as you can. Encourage grandparents and relatives to chip in as they can.

Where you should save

Three key points:

  • If your child stands any chance of getting financial aid, don’t put money in UTMAs, UGMAs or other custodial accounts, which are counted as the student’s assets and dramatically reduce financial aid.
  • Savings bonds have very poor returns and aren’t a great way for most to save for college.
  • State-run 529 plans are a good option for many families. The plans have limited impact on student aid awards. The money grows tax-free for college and the contributor retains control. There are estate-planning benefits as well. For more on which plan to use, read “The best and worst 529 plans.”

UPDATE: In my speech, I mentioned how Coverdells (Education Savings Accounts) were changing–I should have been clear that those changes haven’t happened yet. At the end of 2010, Coverdells were scheduled to revert back to their old version, where the limit on contributions was $500 (down from $2,000) and the money could be used only for college (instead of for K-12 as well). Congress actually extended the more favorable rules through 2012, so Coverdells aren’t scheduled to revert to their old form until the end of this year. Congress may extend the rules again, so anyone with a Coverdell may want to wait before they transfer the money to a different type of account.