tuition_360_270At Great Value Colleges, our goal is to help you get the most bang for your buck when it comes to getting a college degree. We realize that determining “value” can be an elusive concept. But when it comes to the sizable investment in a college degree, we think it’s worth the time to examine all the angles. Your personal interests and career goals are a big factor, and so are cost of tuition, potential financial aid, personal savings, family contribution, cost of living, and the quality of the chosen institution where you’ll get your degree.

Defining Value in a College Education

Degree programs in higher education are divided into several categories.

Colleges and Universities of Higher Learning – Bachelor degree programs for undergraduates or students earning their first degree are designed to be completed within four years. Bachelor of Arts and Bachelor of Science degrees are awarded in business management, education, nursing, interior design, music, communications, fine arts, film arts and theater. A Bachelor of Social Work, Bachelor of Engineering and Bachelor of Philosophy degrees are offered for specialized concentrations and may require additional certification or graduate degrees to work in the profession.

Public four-year colleges and universities offer the best value for higher education with tuition costs ranging from $6,000 per year (full-time state residents) to $18,000 per year (full-time non-residents). Room and board for on-campus dormitory housing is approximately $10,000 per year. Additional fees for activities, transportation and other services can add several thousand dollars to most on-campus costs. Private schools vary greatly between schools and states ranging anywhere from $30,000-$40,000 per year plus fees, housing and meals. Bachelor degrees earned through online programs generally require five years to complete and have graduated tuition. A typical total cost to earn a bachelor’s degree online is $62,000. More college pricing information can be found here.

Advanced graduate degrees include masters, doctorate and professional degrees. Master’s degree programs can generally be completed within one to two years with the majority of fields of study earning a Master of Arts or Master of Science degree. Some academic programs offering master’s degrees include education, business administration, communication, digital media, nursing, information systems, accounting, pharmacology and social work. Doctorate and professional degrees are for advanced practice careers in medicine, law, engineering, psychology, education and business and can take an additional two to five years to complete. Again, public colleges and universities offer significant cost savings on tuition for state residents with a starting tuition of $12,000 per year for master’s degrees and $40,000 per year for doctorate and professional degrees. Non-resident public school tuitions range from $20,000 per year for masters and $80,000 per year for doctorate and professional-level programs. Private schools can range from $62,000 per year for masters and $108,000 for advanced doctorate and professional. Online master’s degrees are offered at an average of $25,000 for a two-year program and $68,000 to complete a four-year doctorate/professional degree.

Community College/Technical School – Typical on-campus programs are completed within two years and award associate degrees or certificates. Online degrees may take additional time as many students attend classes while maintaining a full-time job. Many colleges offer accelerated programs to assist students in completing the degree faster. Associate degree programs such as Associate of Science and Associate of Arts can be used in conjunction with four-year degree programs. Under specific arrangements between schools, the first two years of study can be completed at the less expensive community college with automatic enrollment at the four-year university to complete study toward a bachelor’s degree. Some academic programs utilizing this arrangement may include nursing, education, business administration, accounting and social sciences. Other associate degree or certificate programs are designed for professional training without the necessity for further education. Several areas of study in this category are criminal justice, auto mechanics, licensed professional nurse, dental hygiene, emergency medical technology, information technology, medical assistant, paralegal and radiation therapy technology.

Tuition costs for public community colleges average about $3,000 per year (full-time 2 year in-state). Private two-year college tuition costs are approximately $7,000 to $10,000 per year. Additional activity and transportation fees are required for traditional campus-based programs and vary by school. Online degrees are generally priced per credit hour with total tuition costs ranging between $5,000 and $10,000 to earn an associate degree.

How to Define Value in a College Education

With the cost of a college education increasing and the subsequent debt being incurred, students must find value in all aspects of the process. Selecting the proper school is a key factor in establishing value. The least expensive college or university may not provide the best value. Reputable colleges and universities have been accredited by a peer review board and offer educational programs that meet a high level of standards. In addition, schools that provide a quality education are often recognized with awards and ranked among colleges in the “best of” categories across the country. By attending an accredited institution with a high ranking, graduates will be better prepared to enter to workforce with the skills employers need. In addition, credits earned as an undergraduate are more likely to transfer when seeking a masters or doctorate degree; adding more value by not having to repeat courses.

When choosing a career, students must consider the best path to achieve their goals. By matching the proper level of education with the right institution, graduates will be well qualified for employment in a timely manner. Statistics indicate that college degrees are required in over 60 percent of occupations (2008 Bureau of Labor Statistics, Education and Training Measurements). With so many college graduates vying for the same positions, students must understand what today’s employers are looking for, the amount of education required and what will help them secure that job. It is imperative that students clearly identify their earning potential before pursuing any college degree. The return on investment or the ratio of wages to college debt must be properly balanced. There would be little value if a student acquired $60,000 in student loans to earn a master’s degree in a field with an average annual salary of $50,000.

While there are many fields where an advanced degree will increase earning potential, individuals must research their chosen career to clearly understand what will create more opportunities – education or experience. Before pursuing a master’s, doctorate or professional degree, industry standards should be reviewed. Often adding skills with individual courses can be more valuable than spending thousands to pursue another degree.

The cost of an undergraduate college education is trending up. According to the U.S. Department of Education, prices rose 42 percent at public institutions between 2000-01 and 2010-11 and 31 percent for the same time period at private not-for-profit colleges and universities. Statistics reveal that graduate degrees are also trending up but at a slower rate of approximately four to five percent per year. Fortunately, the increase in student financial aid has also increased over the years making it more affordable and a greater value.

Scholarships, Grants, Loans, Employer Assistance

Financial assistance is available for college expenses through many resources. Scholarships and grants are widely offered through the state, federal government, high schools, military programs, business organizations, charitable organizations, scholarship websites, and directly from the colleges and universities. The majority are need based (income), merit based (S.A.T. scores) or involve a competition such as writing the best essay. Funds obtained through scholarships and grants do not need to be repaid.

Stafford student loans are available at a reduced interest rate through the United States government. Students are required to complete a Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) form to determine eligibility (for loans, scholarships and grants). Private loans for education are available through financial institutions to offset any expenses not covered through other means. Many offer competitive interest rates and deferred or extended re-payment terms.

Many employers provide tuition assistance for advanced professional certification or degrees. In addition, some industries such as nursing have programs to forgive student debt for an extended employment commitment.

Each of these financing opportunities adds tremendous value to obtaining a college education and should be thoroughly researched prior to enrolling in a program.

Careers and Salaries for Individuals with College Degrees

Recent research indicates that individuals with a college degree earn more over their lifetime and have lower unemployment than those without (The College Payoff by Georgetown University Center for Education and the Workforce). Factors such as industry and major play a significant role in how much more, as do gender and race. Over their lifetime, men holding a bachelor’s degree earn approximately $2.27 million and for those with masters, doctoral and professional degrees, they earn $2.67 million, $3.25 million and $3.65 million respectively. Women and minorities also earn more with a degree than without but must still attain a much higher level to compete with men in the workplace.

Industries found to value bachelor’s degrees the most are science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). In today’s competitive work environment, employers receive many applications for a single opening. With so many to choose from, applicants must possess the proper skills from the best institutions. Regardless of what type of degree an individual holds, experience in the field is always desired. For those just entering the career, a relevant degree from an accredited college or university is critical.  According to the BLS, employment opportunities are projected to increase in some of the following fields:

Medical Records and Health Information Technician (Associate of Science in Health Information Technology) – health record management. Skills include data coding and analysis, computer applications, database systems and insurance reimbursement methods. Median annual salary: $32,350. New opportunities are expected due to an increase in insured patients, an aging population and increased medical testing.

Occupational Therapy Assistant (Associate of Science in Occupational Therapy Assistant) – assist therapists with patient rehabilitation in physical, developmental, mental and emotional injuries or disorders. Median annual salary: $51,010. Job growth is expected as occupational therapists hire assistants to achieve patient cost savings.

Software Engineer (Bachelor of Science in Information Technology) – Applications software engineers create software solutions to user problems and Systems software engineers develop custom software packages and maintain/troubleshoot company systems. Annual earnings: $87,790. Rapid growth in this market is predicted as more companies rely on internet-based programming.

Registered Nurse (Bachelor of Science in Nursing) – treatment and monitoring of ill or injured patients in a health care facility. Graduates with a bachelor’s degree, associate’s degree or diploma are all accepted methods to become a registered nurse. Annual salary earned: $64,690. There is a nursing shortage due to an aging workforce so demand is expected to be strong.

Computer and Information Systems Manager (Master of Business Administration) – expert in technology management with a focus on accounting, leadership, marketing, finance, organizational structure and operations. Annual median salary: $115,780. Excellent job opportunities are expected as new technologies rise in the workplace.

Physical Therapist (Doctor of Physical Therapy – professional degree) – rehabilitation services for patients with physical injuries, disorders or medical conditions that prohibit movement and the ability to perform normal physical tasks. Annual salary: $76,310. As the population ages, expected job prospects are excellent. Elderly patients require physical therapy in rehabilitation facilities, hospitals and skilled nursing/assisted living homes.

Additional Resources for Defining Value in a College Education

Payscale provides statistical data for over 1,000 U.S. colleges and universities. Ranking has been determined by evaluating the cost of tuition vs. median lifetime earnings.

CollegeBoard Advocacy and Policy Center identifies changes in the cost of attending colleges and universities including tuition and fees, room and board, and other expenses.

The National Center for Education Statistics provides college and university data on educational trends.

The Federal Student Aid report issued by the U.S. Department of Education provides students with scholarship and grant program information available for colleges and universities.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Outlook Handbook is a career guide for college students to obtain information on trends and degree requirements.