Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Blog Action Day: The Value of Higher Education as an Antidote to Poverty

Today, the Community College of Vermont is participating in Blog Action Day 2008. This annual nonprofit event aims to unite people around the world on one issue on the same day. This year's topic is poverty. Messages from several members of the CCV community will be posted here throughout the day. The following post is submitted by Dee Steffan, CCV’s Northwest Regional Director for Academics

I remember sitting in a graduate class at UVM in 1980, listening to a professor in a higher ed administration course forecast the cost of college 20 years hence. My jaw dropped to the floor when he noted that, by the year 2000, four years at a competitive private college was likely to cost students $150,000. I thought he had taken leave of his senses! Having recently graduated from such a college, and knowing it had cost my dad just over $25,000 for my gilded sheepskin, it seemed preposterous that those costs would multiply six times over by the time then-current toddlers walked across the stage to collect their undergraduate degrees. Honestly, I dismissed his projection as poppycock.

As it turns out, he was right and I was woefully wrong. It now costs about $50,000/year to attend my alma mater, where the annual tuition increases at it and schools like it are rising four times faster than the overall inflation rate. Tack on the expense of textbooks, and the fact that federal aid to education now takes the form of loans much more than outright grants, and it’s easy to see why graduates and their families are struggling under the weight of education-driven debt. Even in our public colleges and universities, rising costs have put an undergraduate degree out of reach for poor and middle-class families struggling to pay the competing costs of mortgages, health care, food, and gas. My daughter’s sister, who attends UVM as an out-of-state Mainer, plunked down $37,500 for tuition, room and board as an entering freshman last year, and that did not include books, laundry, and the occasional slice of pizza at Mr. Mike’s.

For decades, economists, sociologists, educators, and politicians have been able to agree on at least one fact of life: the definitive, causal relationship between educational achievement and poverty abatement. This relationship exists on an individual level (the higher one goes up the education ladder, the better off one is likely to be economically), as well as on a collective level (the better educated a society, the less vulnerable it is as a whole to the ravages of poverty). And in fact, the most recent census figures reaffirm the economic value of a college degree.

(Source: Bureau of the Census, U.S. Department of Commerce)

A second relationship has long been thought to exist: the more prestigious the institution and the more one pays to attend it, the greater its graduates’ earning power in the marketplace. That has certainly been the case in past decades, when college costs were generally affordable and financial aid (heavily subsidized by the Federal government in the form of grants and aid) was easily accessible. Only recently, in light of the rapidly escalating costs of an Ivy League education, have experts begun to question the ironclad validity of the ‘elitism’ factor.

So here’s the conundrum: There persists a strong and predictable relationship between education and income potential. No betting person can guarantee that a college degree will pave the road from poverty to prosperity for everyone. There are too many factors that underlie the root causes of poverty in America for higher education alone to overcome them. But the converse is a bet that most would take: without the benefit of higher education in the 21st century, there is a far greater chance that someone born or fallen into poverty will never dig out from it. The cost of education, however, is outstripping inflationary factors and appears poised on the brink of pricing itself out of reach for many low and middle-income families, who nonetheless, NEED the benefits that a college degree confers if our sons and daughters—or we, ourselves-- are to make it in an increasingly competitive workforce. This is particularly true in an era when we’re witnessing an enormous cost-shifting of high-ticket items like health care and tuition from employers and government to individuals.

The question becomes: does the value of higher ed hold true today, in the context of spiraling costs, reduced federal and state aid, and much tighter national and family budgets? Put another way, Does earning potential conferred by a college degree outweigh the up-front costs that will force the average student in the Class of 2009 to graduate $21,500 in debt?

I would argue that it does, but that students will need to be very savvy about how they approach their college education. For students who might be reading this blog and attending CCV, I venture to say that you are already ahead of the game. Because one of the very smartest options that you and your family can consider is the value of entrusting the first two years of post-secondary education to your local community college. The mission of community colleges in general, and CCV in particular, is to focus on teaching and learning, access, and affordability. With its small classes and active learning educational philosophy, CCV provides you with many opportunities to hone your skills as college-level learners. By hiring faculty from our local communities, most of whom work in the fields in which they teach, CCV opens doors to real-world experience that keeps your education current, pragmatic, and often inspiring. The small class size gives you ample opportunity for ongoing feedback from faculty and advisors, and the liberal studies core that underlies all of our associate degree programs aims to broaden every graduate’s communication, quantitative reasoning, and critical thinking skills that are considered absolutely essential in the job market.

The two-year degree carries some significant advantages beyond the financial gains you are likely to realize over a lifetime of employment. In completing an associate degree before moving on to a bachelor’s or master’s degree, you as a community college graduate:
  • Have saved an average of $10-20,000 on the annual costs of your education;
  • Have earned a credential that will confer and retain its value regardless of some unforeseen interruption in your college tenure that forces you to postpone school before completing your bachelor’s degree;
  • Have more likely ensured the transferability of all of your credits so that you pick up as a junior at your next chosen university or college.
  • Have avoided the typical freshman year experience of large lecture halls and professors who will never know your name;
  • Have benefitted from the importance that community colleges place on teaching and learning. This is nowhere more pronounced than at CCV, which has deliberately chosen to make the classroom the primary focus of our program.

All of that said, there are some things that you can do to optimize your time at CCV:
  • Carefully consider all of your competing obligations in any given semester—family, job, volunteer, healthcare, and school—before enrolling in classes, and make sure that you can devote the time it takes to be successful in your classes. On average, this really IS 6-9 hours outside of class for every three-credit course. Plan accordingly!
  • Borrow only what you need in financial aid. Remember, you will need to pay this money back, so it’s best to be as conservative as possible when taking on debt.
  • Work with your academic advisor to map out a plan for completing your degree, semester by semester. Do your best to stick to the plan.
  • If you find yourself overwhelmed, talk with people—financial aid, academic advisors, your teachers—before dropping a class. There are often costs associated with dropping, and the setbacks of time and money lost may not be worth it.
  • Make it to the finish line! The longer you stay at CCV, the more money you’ll save, and the more opportunities you’ll have to reap the rewards of persistence. (See list above!) Remember, attaining a degree makes you more employable in the job market, and serves you well in terms of transfer credits at your next college if you opt to go on.

You’ve already made an excellent choice in coming to CCV. For all of you who are first-generation college goers, congratulations on your achievements to date. Earning your degree can be a life-changing accomplishment for you and generations to follow. For those of you using an associate degree or coursework as a stepping stone to a Bachelor’s Degree, smart thinking! Whatever has brought you to our doors, it’s great to have you here. It is the fervent hope and goal of all of us who work at the College—faculty, administration, and staff—that CCV will provide an important firewall against poverty for all of our students, regardless of the circumstances that brought you here to begin with. Take full advantage of the academic opportunities that await you!

Dee Steffan
Northwest Regional Director for Academics

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