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Cost vs. Value in Higher Education

Cost vs. Value in Higher Education

11 July, 2016

Is it worth obtaining higher education?

We keep returning to this question as educators, administrators, parents, and students, yet there’s no conclusive answer. And there are more choices than ever, from certificates and open education opportunities to on-campus, online, and hybrid programs offered by a variety of institutions. Trying to make the necessary comparisons when choosing a program is challenging to say the least, but in today’s economic climate, many decisions are based primarily on cost.


Growing student debt and the inability of college graduates to find jobs in their fields of study are widely reported. Future students need to ensure they understand the financial realities of college attendance, repayment of loans, and starting salaries before enrolling.

The cost of higher education is largely a mathematical calculation that involves what institutions charge (i.e., tuition, fees), often referred to as “sticker price”, minus financial assistance available (i.e., loans, grants, scholarships), resulting in “net price.” Based on a recent article on WashingtonPost.com, “college is an outstanding investment, with an annual rate of return many times that of stocks and bonds. But if you pay the sticker price, it’s getting worse.

The distinction between sticker price and net price is a significant one, and institutions and educational organizations give information about the costs of attendance in various ways online:

Net Price Calculators: Required of institutions receiving Title IV federal student aid, these online tools help possible students estimate the cost of attendance. Many schools make these available,  but there is some controversy about how well these calculators work and how much detail each school gives.

Trends in College Pricing Report: Published by The College Board, this resource includes more details about net price calculations along with information about institutional finances and enrollment.

StudentAid.gov: From the U.S. Department of Education, this site provides details about the federal student aid program and other guidance on calculating the cost of attendance.

College expenses can include various expenses that aren’t always taken into consideration by online checklists, such as living expenses and textbooks. For adult students who have families, attending school may mean child care costs and time off from work. Online students have additional hardware, software, and Internet access costs. A student’s net price for a program may also factor in tax credits or other types of deductions.


The cost of higher education is more difficult to measure and involves more than just numbers and dollar amounts. Geoffrey Cox, president of Alliant International University, reminds that “the value of an education is partly what it costs, but also what it delivers. Choosing to pursue a college-level program, and selecting that program from among many options, means looking at not only the financial requirements, but also how the experience and resulting degree be useful to meet the needs of the individual student:

Academic Quality: There are numerous ongoing initiatives seeking to identify the components of a high-quality education. Accreditation, student support services, and faculty credentials are just a few areas that affect value in terms of learning achievement and retention.

Career Preparation: As more students enter college with career goals in mind, the value of a program may be linked to the demand for graduates in the field of study, the availability of job placement services, and the strength of alumni networks, among other employment-related concerns.

Interests, Availability, Accessibility: From the learning environment to the topics covered, part of the value of higher education is in its ability to fulfill the learner’s interests in a way that is available and meaningful in his or her context, and to promote learning and intellectual development.

Jason Boyers from Harrison College suggests “the key to really understanding and evaluating an education’s worth is looking at its value over a lifetime.” Benefits include future possible earnings as well as the fact “that it makes lasting changes in the lives of those who seek it. Education changes people’s stories…”

While the cost of a certain program may be the same for most students, the value of the program may vary for each learner. There’s equal significant in both financial planning and goal setting when making decisions about college and it’s up to the individual to set his or her priorities and research the possibilities.