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Is College Worth It?

by Pamela M. Christian, Ph.D.

In 2010, the average annual tuition plus expenses at a private, nonprofit, four-year college reached about $35,000, according to U.S.News & World Report.1 This $140,000 investment for undergraduate students who graduate in four years represents the most expensive route to earning a degree available today. Considering the variety of less expensive options available, students and their families are asking a direct question: Is the costly investment of a private college or university really worth it? I contend the answer is a resounding “Yes!,” even in the midst of tough circumstances.

With 7.6 million American people unemployed, students and families must exercise more fiscal caution than ever in selecting an institution of higher education. The realities of life in a resource-challenged economy prompt students to pursue the highest quality education at the lowest possible cost. While families everywhere grapple with affordability, few question the commonly understood benefits of postsecondary education. The most compelling motivators for pursuing a college degree include increased earning potential, career and/or vocational preparation, and quality of life. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, greater levels of education correspond to greater income. A college graduate will earn an average of $412 more per week or $21,424 per year. Master’s and professional degree holders increase the annual financial advantages to $33,592 and $40,768, respectively. The Social Security Administration defines the normal retirement age as 67 years old. If a college graduate works from age 25 through age 67, a bachelor’s degree will provide an $899,808 benefit, representing more than a 6 percent annual return on an investment of $140,000.

In addition to increasing earning potential, a college education has become a requirement for many entry-level employment opportunities. Many jobs previously secured by hardworking and intellectually astute high school graduates now require a bachelor’s degree. Former University of Southern California President Steven Sample, Ph.D., explains, “The B.A. degree has even created a form of social shorthand in which knowing the university a person attended, and the subject in which he or she majored, provides a snapshot of a person’s interests and abilities—a kind of intellectual first impression.”2 The Public Policy Institute of California concurs and predicts “that 41 percent of jobs in 2025 will require a college degree.” While content-specific knowledge that formerly allowed people to thrive in various careers remains essential, employers seek the breadth of experiences inherent in a college graduate. In fact, many require even more. In today’s competitive marketplace, establishing a career calls for at least an undergraduate degree, often a master’s degree, and substantial experience. With labor market activity indicating that many Americans will have an average of 11 jobs in their working career, a college education serves as a prerequisite for both marketability and flexibility.

Meeting the minimum qualifications for a variety of employment opportunities provides college-educated candidates the necessary fortitude to reinvent themselves in the marketplace. The discipline, persistence, and intellectual acumen required to successfully complete degree requirements are transferable skills. These skills prove relevant across diverse workplace environments, from boardrooms to mission fields. One of my first jobs after earning a Bachelor of Arts in History called for a computer science degree in the position description. Similarly, a thriving librarian I know earned an undergraduate degree in veterinary science. While it is not advisable for students to invest the resources of time and money into academic programs unrelated to their career interests, the extensibility of a college degree is noteworthy. Preparing students to critically evaluate, integrate, and apply knowledge, while demonstrating competence in the content and methods of their chosen discipline or professional program, effectively trains graduates for the world of work. This undoubtedly accounts for the lower unemployment rate among college graduates compared to those without a college education. The unemployment rate of those with a bachelor’s degree is roughly half the rate of those without college experience. The rate drops to less than 2.5 percent unemployment with a master’s degree, and less than 2 percent with a doctorate.3 In what might be called a survival-of-the-fittest economy, higher education produces the most viable contenders.

Clearly, the rigorous process of earning a college degree warrants the investment and effort regardless of institutional type. A degree from any appropriately accredited institution should correlate with financial returns and employability. Why then should students pay more in annual tuition to attend a private institution rather than a seemingly less expensive public college or university? As with all major purchases, there is more involved in the cost of a college education than simply the sticker price. Two significant factors make the actual cost of attending a private institution more cost effective: graduation rates and lost income. In an examination of graduation rates by private institutions comparable to the University of California (UC) system, the Association of Independent California Colleges and Universities (AICCU) found that 71 percent of the students in private schools graduated within four years as opposed to only 58 percent in the UC system. The success rates of private institutions comparable to the California State University (CSU) system proved even more substantial, with 45 percent of students in private institutions completing in four years contrasted with only 18 percent within the CSU system. Delays in obtaining the bachelor’s degree, which historically averaged four years to complete, represents lost income potential for students. The AICCU reports that the cost savings inherent in graduating from a private institution within four years in California, rather than a public institution that may take even longer, can total as much as $100,000. This significant cost savings, and the other advantages inherent in the 13–27 percent greater possibility of graduating within four years, mitigates the annual tuition differentials between public and private institutions.4

Understanding the advantages of pursuing higher education and the near equivalent cost of attending a public or private institution, discerning students and families must then examine the value of a school’s mission and identity. This is where faith-based institutions in general, and APU in particular, stand apart. Advancing the work of God in the world through academic excellence in liberal arts and professional programs of higher education that encourage students to develop a Christian perspective of truth and life distinguishes the APU community and its graduates. Within and outside the classroom, students engage processes of intellectual and spiritual provocation that foster their growth, renewal, and transformation.

This is significant for students pursuing higher education as a means of financial viability and stability in the future, as well as those primarily directed toward vocational training and preparation in response to a divine call on their lives. Tearrah (Gamble ’03) Brown, M.Ed. ’05, who earned her bachelor’s degree in liberal studies and master’s degree in education, believes that APU provides “more than just a degree.” When she sought a Christian institution, cost did not influence her decision as she received sufficient funding from scholarships and grants, and believed that “God would take care of the rest.” Currently a full-time homemaker, she reaps the benefits of her education. “Even though I’m not using my degree in a school setting, I’m utilizing my learning to ensure the academic success of my children, which is worth all the money in the world.”

Students and alumni in undergraduate, master’s, and doctoral programs attest to the transformative experience provided by the Christ-centered education at APU. John Wick ’06, M.A. ’08, a doctoral candidate for the Ed.D. in Educational Leadership with an emphasis in Teaching and Learning, confirms the value of education from a Christian perspective. “As a working professional, my main priority was to find a program that would help me to earn my B.A. quickly and still be held to high academic standards. APU’s School of Adult and Professional Studies (APS) program and focus on Christian values solidified my decision to attend.” The APS program offers accelerated bachelor’s and master’s degree programs in online and face-to-face formats, affording working professionals an ideal opportunity to pursue higher education.

Wick comments that after earning his B.A., he “was so impressed with the school, its Four Cornerstones [Christ, Scholarship, Community, and Service], and its dedication to spiritual and academic excellence that I continued to attend.” Wick followed his B.A. in Human Development with a concentration in English with an M.A. in Education and two credentials. Currently, Wick serves as vice principal and technology coordinator at St. Justin Martyr Parish School in Anaheim, California.

Kirsten Garrett ’11, an executive manager for Target, applies her business education and APU’s service emphasis daily. “I’m challenged to constantly raise the bar, achieve more significant goals, and figure out ways to engage and inspire my team to achieve them,” said Garrett. “Leading through service, as Christ did, never fails to drive results. APU challenged me to develop a servant leader mindset and integrate my faith into all situations. Because of this, I know I’m serving and glorifying God first, which is what we are all called to do, especially in our careers. I’ve applied this approach to my work and can see the fruit. You can’t put a price on this!”

Overwhelming evidence makes a convincing case for higher education and debunks the myth that private institutions cost more than their public counterparts. Given this frame of reference, the overriding question shifts from whether a private college or university is worth it to: Which college or university provides an experience worth even more than the degree awarded at graduation? When students with this criterion search the college landscape, Azusa Pacific shines like an “illuminated city on a hill,” as President Jon Wallace describes in the APU Shared Vision 2022. A closer look reveals the nature of that light—a God First mentality that permeates the campus and facilitates faith integration that enriches the mind and character of each student; advanced scholarship and research that create a dynamic and challenging intellectual environment that develops critical thinkers prepared to lead, envision, and innovate; and a global perspective across disciplines that captivates faculty and students and leads to real-world solutions that make a transformational impact on culture and society. Whether at APU or another reputable institution, students and their families can rest in the knowledge that the investments of financial resources, intellectual effort, and valuable time will unequivocally return dividends over a lifetime.

Pamela M. Christian, Ph.D., is professor and chair of the Department of Doctoral Studies in Education in APU's School of Education. pchristian@apu.edu

1 “The Average Cost of a U.S. College Education: A Comparative Look at the Average Annual Cost of Higher Education” U.S.News & World Report. www.usnews.com/opinion/articles/2010/08/24/the-average-cost-of-a-us-college-education

2 Sample, S. B. “Enabling Education.” In Trachtenberg, S. J. & Kauvar, G. B. (Eds.). Letters to the Next President Strengthening America’s Foundation in Higher Education. (Los Angeles: Korn/Ferry Institute, 2008), 47.

3 Bureau of Labor Statistics. www.bls.gov/emp/ep_chart_001.htm

4 Extrapolated from www.aiccu.edu/images/stories/aiccu/pdf_2011/guide%202011-12.pdf

Originally published in the Spring '12 issue of APU Life. Download the full issue (PDF).