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Calculating College Worth


Is college worth it?

This question is bandied-about with increasing frequency these days, even as the Obama Administration has placed even greater emphasis on getting 60% of Americans into college by 2020.   Many different forces collide around the hot-button question of “Is college worth it?”

Let me be clear at the outset:  my final answer is, “YES, ABSOLUTELY!”  No surprises there.  I provide specific reasons, below.  But, first, let’s look at the reasons for questioning the worth of college today, and also examine some of the most acute issues around tuition prices and the cost of operating universities.

Why are pundits, politicians, parents and students wondering aloud if college is “worth it?”

Political, economic and social factors drive this controversy.    Politically, I find it so interesting that doubting the value of a college education has become fashionable among certain elite groups even as more and more low income students, particularly students of color, participate in higher education.  Nobody questioned the value of college when a higher education was largely the province of young, wealthy white men for whom the term “gentleman’s ‘C’ ” was invented.  Let’s not forget that women had to create their own colleges back-in-the-day because they were denied admission to the men’s schools, and the same was true for African Americans, Catholics and others who were on the margins of education and society in the days when college was largely reserved for the aristocracy.

With the G.I. Bill in 1944, the Higher Ed Acts starting in 1962, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and much subsequent legislation and public policy, higher education went from elite to egalitarian, and the idea of obtaining a college degree went from being a rare privilege for a few to an essential tool to pursue the American Dream for many.  Today, people with baccalaureate degrees earn at least twice as much over the course of their lifetimes as those with high school diplomas, and advanced degrees can add several times more in value.

But the very legislation that opened higher education to all people broadly also came with a pricetag of increasingly enormous and worrisome size.  Just this week, we learned that total student loan debt in the United States has passed the $1 trillion mark.  The Occupy Wall Street protesters have included unsustainable student debt as part of their list of concerns.  At the same time, the College Board released its annual report on tuition prices, revealing that tuition at public colleges and universities is rising at twice the rate of private institutions, in part due to the fact that states are shifting the burden of paying for college to students and families at a time when increased enrollment demand is outpacing the ability of state budgets to fund the volume.

The tuition price numbers and volume of student debt, along with the dramatic rise in Pell Grant spending from $18 Billion to $35 Billion in just two years, have strengthened the chorus of criticism of higher education’s costs and even the worth of the college degree.  Add to that the plain fact that the current economic conditions, with a sustained high unemployment rate, means that even college graduates sometimes can’t find work.  Unemployed college grads with large loan obligations are numerous in the Occupy Wall Street protests.

But, with all of that, I must insist that college is “worth it” and must not be denied to those who can realize great personal and professional benefits from higher learning.  We certainly have to get a grip on tuition prices and the costs of running these ungainly operations we call universities today.  Trinity is doing a good deal to address those issues, see below.  But to suggest that the nation should step away from its historic commitment to broad-access higher education is profoundly short-sighted.

The main purpose of undergraduate general education is to empower students with the knowledge and skills necessary to tackle the great problems of society — the ability to think critically and expansively about complicated issues, to know how to research deeply into facts in order to challenge mere opinions, to be able to develop and express coherent and persuasive responses to large life challenges and critical social problems, to challenge convention while creating new ways of understanding human reality, to learn how to pursue intellectual growth independently long after the classroom days are over, to develop a keen appreciation for what is beautiful and sacred in art and music and literature and philosophy and theology as a means to sustain satisfaction and fulfillment in that most human part of our nature, our intellect.  All of these qualities certainly help ensure the student’s employment and excellence at work, but we must never confuse the true purpose of higher education in continuous personal and intellectual growth and fulfillment with mere job training.

Major programs and advanced graduate and professional studies are more directly relevant to lifetime career success and satisfaction, but even those programs are about far more than getting jobs as the only end result.  Long after graduation day, many alumnae and alumni find themselves in jobs that are far afield from their first majors.  Just yesterday, I met a Trinity alumna who majored in English and loved it, but now she is completing her Master’s in Social Work because that’s where her life pathway took her occupation.  We have thousands of similar stories, graduates who were able to keep changing and mastering new fields of knowledge because their platform of learning in the liberal arts prepared them well to keep learning and growing intellectually, personally and professionally.

Trinity’s faculty and staff work hard each day to provide high-value learning opportunities to our students.  Our management and board are also keenly aware of the financial challenges that our students face.  We have done everything possible to keep Trinity’s tuition prices as low as possible, with the result that among private colleges locally, Trinity’s tuition price is the lowest, as is our total cost of attendance (which includes room and board, books and transportation and incidental costs).

Even with our efforts to keep Trinity’s tuition price low, we know that our students also need a great deal of financial support, and we provide such support for full-time undergraduates through our Trinity grant program.  Part-time undergraduates and graduate students also have discounts “baked into” their per-credit tuition prices, which are far below the average per-credit tuition prices charged at other area universities.

Trinity’s full-time undergraduate tuition in 2011-2012 is $20,150.  The rate of increase over the prior year was 2%, well below the consumer price index rise of 3.9%.  Trinity’s increases have held steady around 2-3% for the last ten years, well below the national and local tuition increase rates for both public and private universities.

Trinity’s “total cost of attendance” for full-time undergraduates this year is $33,515, and that includes tuition, room and board, books and transportation and other incidental expenses.  Many areas universities today have a total cost of attendance that exceeds $50,000.

Realizing that these costs for students and families are substantial, Trinity makes every effort to make attending Trinity affordable through providing a very generous financial aid program.  Trinity students in the Class of 2013 (students who started in 2009) received total financial aid packages averaging $23,600, including total grants and scholarships averaging $15,800.

Financial aid packaging can be complicated and confusing.  Because many universities like Trinity provide a great deal of financial aid, the actual amount that students have to pay is much less than the “sticker price” of the published tuition and fees.  The difference is known as the “net price” for students.

The U.S. Department of Education has recognized the problem that students and families sometimes have a hard time knowing exactly what they have to pay, given the variance between the published price and the actual payments (net price).  So, all universities are now required to post a “net price calculator” on our websites to help consumers know more about likely payments.

Click this link to see Trinity’s net price calculator.

The net price that comes up on the calculator is only an estimate…. the real actual payment is determined once the student enrolls, picks courses and makes other choices like whether to live on campus.

The other side of the college cost controversy is the question of why it costs so much to run an institution of higher education today.  I can’t speak for other colleges and universities, but here at Trinity, we can account for every penny that we spend, and all of it is spent frugally and with an eye to maximum return for students.

Here’s a snapshot of how we spend this year’s budget:  $35 million in expenses in 2011-2012:

For the size of Trinity’s enterprise — 2555 students, nearly 500 full-and-part-time faculty and staff, many thousands more visitors and patrons of the Trinity Center, Trinity’s expense budget is quite frugal.  Our salaries are not exorbitant, and we do not spend money on frills.  Trinity devotes the revenues we receive from student tuition (which is about 80% of all revenues) to student learning and the related services that benefit students.

This is a long blog post on a very important topic.  We publish more information on Trinity’s finances in the Frequently Asked Questions section of our website.  My colleagues in the administration, on the faculty and board remain deeply committed to providing the best possible education and services to our students.

Trinity students are worth it!

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Patricia A. McGuire, President, Trinity, 125 Michigan Ave. NE, Washington, DC 20017
Phone: 202.884.9050   Email: