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MailTribune.com
  • The (real) truth about the cost of college

  • Whenever we write about how much it costs to go to college, we hear from a lot of readers.
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  • Whenever we write about how much it costs to go to college, we hear from a lot of readers.
    Some are sympathetic toward students (and their tuition-paying parents), and think tuition costs are out of control.
    But others are dismissive of the whole issue. Why don't students just go to community college, they wonder. Why should the state pay anything toward higher education? Why are college presidents so richly rewarded, and can't these schools do a better job of managing their money?
    Last month, the U.S. Senate blocked a bill that would have allowed some students to refinance their college loans. Critics said it would cost taxpayers too much. And some questioned why students were taking out such big loans in the first place.
    Here's a look at some frequently expressed sentiments and questions about college — why it costs so much, and what's behind escalating levels of student debt.
    QUESTION: Aren't college costs going up because of bloated administrative costs and highly paid college presidents?
    ANSWER: A recent report by the Delta Cost Project did find that at universities across the nation, the compensation costs for employees are rising steadily, and there's a widespread increase in the number of administrative jobs.
    But most of the increase was at private colleges, for jobs that provide noninstructional student services — such as counseling, admissions, financial and athletics. And a big chunk of the compensation increase was due to rising health-care costs and retirement contributions.
    Overall, public research universities and community colleges average 16 fewer employees per 1,000 fulltime students than they did in 2000. The report did not look at specific universities.
    University of Washington President Michael Young makes $570,000 a year, and he'll be eligible for a deferred compensation payment of nearly $1 million in a few more years. He's the 19th highest-paid public college president in the country.
    It's worth knowing, though, that he is the CEO of the third-largest nonmilitary employer in Washington — an institution with a $6 billion budget, four hospitals, $1.25 billion in research funding, and 30,000 employees. He makes more than Gov. Jay Inslee ($166,000), but less than UW head football coach Chris Petersen ($3.2 million — a salary paid for primarily by football ticket sales).
    Hundreds of UW employees make more than $250,000 a year. Why? The UW says the salaries of 80 percent of its 100 highest-paid employees are paid through federal research grants or athletic funds. About 70 percent work in health sciences, and some of the highest-paid include neurosurgeons and cardiologists who teach medicine, see patients at UW Medical Center and also receive federal research money.
    Q: Why don't more students start by enrolling in a community college?
    A: Community-college classes are often much smaller than at a public four-year university. With yearly tuition of about $4,000, and agreements that make it easier to transfer credits to an in-state university, it's a very good way to cut costs.
    Keep in mind that community colleges also have lower completion rates than four-year schools; it's a different atmosphere, and may not offer the same level of rigor or the same amount of academic assistance for failing students. And some studies have suggested that low-income students do better when they start their academic careers at more demanding colleges and universities — schools that also offer more in financial aid.
    Q: Don't a lot of college students major in worthless liberal-arts fields?
    A: The most popular degree fields at the UW, for example, are psychology, biology, communication, biochemistry, economics, political science and accounting. Also on the list: business and engineering degrees, mathematics and computer science.
    University career experts say students get the most out of college if they choose a major they're most interested in, and then learn how to translate their college work into marketable skills.
    They also point out that the vast majority of people in the workforce with four-year degrees majored in the liberal arts. And they note that the workforce needs people who are experts in a wide variety of subjects.
    Q: Universities should stop wasting money on fancy new buildings, climbing walls, health clubs and luxurious dorms.
    A: Many critics of higher education have railed against the cost of new buildings.
    UW has recently started replacing its aging residence halls with gleaming new buildings that feature private bathrooms in each room, even a restaurant and fitness center. The new dorms are in high demand among students. Rents are about average when compared to residence halls at other universities, but higher than at the UW's older residence halls. A double room in an older hall costs about $5,500 per academic year, for instance, while a double in a new dorm costs about $8,300 per academic year. Over four years, that's a cost difference of more than $11,000.
    The lion's share of capital project money that the UW has received in recent years went to renovations, roof replacements and minor capital repairs, and to one new building.
    In recent years, the university has funded construction through private donations or by selling bonds and then paying them off through federal research grant money. The UW gets more federal research funding than any other public university in the U.S.
    Q. College is not worth the money.
    A: Every other week, it seems, another study comes out that shows the sharp wage increase and lowered unemployment rate that comes from getting a college degree. The most recent paper, by MIT economist David Autor, finds that the net cost of attending is now negative half a million dollars; in other words, not going to college will cost you about $500,000.
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