Controlling College Costs One Student at a Time

Higher education costs, productivity, and student debt are issues in the cross hairs of policymakers and the public. Public colleges blame government support for trends in college costs, lawmakers blame colleges for poor productivity, parents blame both colleges and government, and the academy blames almost everyone for misunderstanding the issues or not being given the unconditional love that they believe they deserve.   Aside from my professional interest I have a strong personal interest in the issue as the father of college students.  One thing that I have learned from the blurred lines between my professional and personal interests in higher education is that both colleges and students (and their parents), have far more control over the costs of higher education than either seems to want to acknowledge and until each more fully exercises that control, some disturbing trends aren’t going to change much.

Trends in higher education costs and productivity are more complex than their popular treatment suggests but as I noted in a February post, the surest way to limit the cost of higher education is for students to graduate on time.  I’ve been looking at college completion and grad rate data and since it is impossible to highlight the rates of thousands of colleges I have chosen to highlight the rate at which students at  the “flagship” public university in each state graduate “on-time” (within 4 years for a Bachelor’s degree).  A quick look at the chart below shows what tremendous variation there is in “on-time” grad rates at public universities.  It is nice to see the University of New Hampshire with a relatively high “on-time” graduation rate.  I am sure there are other factors as well but “eyeballing” the chart also suggests how important student qualities and characteristics are to these data, as the “top” public universities in the nation that are more selective (UVA, UNC, UMICH, U Cal Berkely etc.) also have very high on-time grad rates.

On time grad rates at public universities

Speaking of the University of Virginia, here is a picture of one of the authors of this blog at the foot of greatness (a free, lifetime subscription to this blog for anyone who suggests that, in fact, that is where he is spends every day).

Gully and Jefferson

Yes it costs a lot to send a kid to college and I wish it were cheaper but the chances of that happening during the matriculation of my (or any) individual’s child are slim.  But we can price shop and perhaps more importantly make sure we have to pay for as few years of college as possible by graduating early or on-time and by choosing a college where we have the best prospects for that to happen.   I’ve been looking at college cost, finance, and completion and graduation data a lot lately, along with demographic, student ability, and other data on the characteristics of college students and their families.  I think it would be pretty easy to develop a discriminant function that would fairly accurately predict whether a student of differing characteristics and abilities would graduate and graduate on time from a particular institution and that might give parents a better metric of potential costs than does ‘sticker price” or “net price”. Choosing a college where can you pursue your calling is most important but price shopping and choosing to graduate on time are keys to minimizing college costs and they are both factors that are largely within the control of students and their parents.

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