Complex College Choices in a Changing Economic Climate

In his first term, President Obama set a goal that the US would once again have the highest proportion of college graduates in the world by 2020. However, choosing whether to go to college, which school is best and how much college to peruse has become increasingly complex for students and families. In the newest issue of the Future of Children, authors Philip Oreopoulos and Uros Petronijevic write that in today’s economy, college tuition rates are higher than ever, student debt is larger than ever, and many students take longer than ever to graduate. Meanwhile, technology is changing the playing field at a rapid pace. Some have to choose between an elite school and a more affordable one, while others seek online flexibility as they juggle work and family.

The New York Times reports that parents often see top-tier universities as the way to give their children the best chance at success, but little evidence has demonstrated a link between college selectivity and later earnings. Oreopoulos and Petronijevic find that earnings potential varies with college major and is largest for those with post-graduate degrees. Moreover, community college programs may be best for students who don’t want to or can’t complete a four-year degree. They stress that students and their families need help to navigate the financial aid and college decision process, taking into account the likelihood of completion and expected costs and debts. “As difficult as it is, completing such an assessment before reaching a decision is key to making the most out of college.”

An increasingly relevant factor in college decisions is the availability of online education. The New York Times highlights the efforts of many institutions to provide online learning opportunities in order to address problems of limited seating due to state budget cuts, as well as a high demand for remedial coursework for new undergraduates. Future of Children authors Bradford Bell and Jessica Federman find that online college programs can be an effective alternative to traditional classroom teaching if they are rich in content and have a high level of interactivity. Experimental research should continue to investigate how these attributes influence different types of learning.

For more discussion on this topic, check out the latest issue of the Future of Children, Postsecondary Education in the United States. Also see the issues Opportunity in America, America’s High Schools and Transition to Adulthood.