By Gail MarksJarvis
WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) Since 2003, the Princeton Review has surveyed college applicants and their parents about the stress associated with the admission process and getting financial offers from colleges. In 2003, with jobs plentiful and few people asking “Is college worth it?” only 56 percent of students and their parents said their stress was high. This year, 76 percent said they were worried about the financial aspects of college.
It had to come to this.
For years, high school seniors hoping to go to college in the fall fixated on getting into their dream college. But that’s changed. Students still are thinking about their campus visits and hoping to immerse themselves in a college culture that seems to best fit who they are. But in an era marked by job insecurity and student loan worries, concerns about keeping debt down and finding a decent job after graduation have turned the longing for the dream school into a secondary issue.
Since 2003, the Princeton Review has surveyed college applicants and their parents about the stress associated with the admission process and getting financial offers from colleges.
In 2003, with jobs plentiful and few people asking “Is college worth it?” only 56 percent of students and their parents said their stress was high. This year, 76 percent said they were worried about the financial aspects of college.
About 98 percent said this year that financial aid will be necessary to pay for college. Some 65 percent deemed aid as “extremely necessary.”
Both students and their parents are focused on what happens after the college years. In a departure from the pre-recession period, 42 percent said this year that the main benefit of college is to get a better job and income.
Much to the disappointment of educators, who want to tout the value of education for its own sake, fewer families think they can afford college for its intrinsic value alone. Only 33 percent say the main benefit of college is “exposure to new ideas” and 26 percent ranked “education” as the main objective.
With the cost of tuition, housing, food and other college expenses now totaling about $25,000 for one year at an in-state public universities and $50,000 a year for private colleges, the preoccupation with outcomes doesn’t seem unrealistic for students who don’t want to move into parents’ basements after college graduation.
The job picture for recent college graduates has improved since the Great Recession, but it’s still not reliable.
Only 46 percent of the students who were about to graduate in 2016 with bachelor’s degrees had a job offer, according to the National Association of Colleges and Employers, which does a survey of graduates each year. That’s an improvement over 2009, when only 41 percent had offers as the nation was coming out of the Great Recession, but it’s far below the 80 percent who were graduating with jobs before the recession, said association researcher Kenneth Tsang.
In addition, pay levels have been stuck. Although college costs have been rising faster than inflation and the average college student with student loans leaves college with about $30,000 in debt, the survey has found that salaries aren’t budging.
In 2016, the median salary for graduates who found jobs was $47,358, essentially flat for the last five years, Tsang said. Pay ranged from $65,000 for math majors to $31,000 for social science majors and $20,000 for those in the performing arts.
Aware of the risks of low pay or finding no job at all, students and parents are changing the way they select colleges. During college visits, instead of simply eyeing what’s on the walls of dorm rooms or being dazzled by the new buildings aimed at luring students to campus, it’s become common to quiz admissions staff and department heads about job prospects.
“A few years ago this would have been taboo,” said Rob Franek, editor-in-chief of The Princeton Review, which publishes Colleges That Pay You Back, a guide that helps students evaluate the efforts colleges put into launching careers. “Now it’s expected. So many schools are trying to defuse the concerns.”
Although most college administrators now realize that they must at least give lip service to careers, approaches and spending vary greatly, Franek said.
For example, Colleges That Pay You Back ranks the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, in Cambridge, Mass., as No. 1 in career placement, which isn’t surprising given the nation’s demand for people with engineering-type degrees. But it also ranks Bentley University, in Waltham, Mass., No. 1 for the best internships, an asset that is considered increasingly important in laying the groundwork for getting a job after graduation.
Franek noted that a program at Boston’s Northeastern University requires students to attend for five years, with a career-oriented year preparing students to move into a job.
During on-campus visits, career centers are often highlighted. But it’s essential to determine what those centers actually do and the specific staff numbers devoted to them.
“The colleges tend to tout career services, but they aren’t providing the infrastructure that they would need to do to provide what they tout,” Tsang said. When he meets with career services staff, he said, their usual complaint is that their budgets have been flat for 10 years.
When surveyed, most students say they most appreciated help with resumes from career service departments, but beyond that service many career centers are ranked poorly.
“Internships are crucial to getting a job quickly,” said Tsang, and some colleges work with students to help them find internships while also devoting other staff to recruiting employers offering jobs and internships.
Franek noted that the University of Florida has 25 full-time staffers working in career services.
ABOUT THE WRITER
Gail MarksJarvis is a personal finance columnist for the Chicago Tribune and author of “Saving for Retirement Without Living Like a Pauper or Winning the Lottery.”