Why Students Need Key Information

May 5, 2015
By Iris Palmer, New America

This post originally appeared on New America's EdCentral and is reprinted with permission.

A young man, Tyler, was on the TV show Undercover Boss the other night (don’t judge).  In many ways, he reflected the new typical American college student. He didn’t go full time or live on campus, he worked two jobs and went to school nights for his dental hygienist associate degree. And Tyler was clear about why he was pursuing that degree:  “It is the cheapest associate degree with the biggest bang for your money”.

Tyler was pretty well informed. While labor market outcome data is not easily accessible for Ohio students, if you look at the California Community College System—which does have labor market data—you’ll find that students who graduate with an associate in dental hygiene make an average of $64,000 two years after graduation. Not a bad return. Tyler is setting himself up not to have to work two jobs.

Or, at least he was. Tyler has had a hard life growing up in poverty, watching friends and family succumb to addiction. This experience left him with a desire to work in psychology with those struggling with addiction. Cue the generous boss from the show, who is so inspired by the worthy, hardworking employee that she bestows a generous gift. In this case the boss decides to, you guessed it, give Tyler money to pursue his true passion of a BA in psychology. That’s the good news. The bad news, which isn’t cast as bad news on the show, is that she only offers him $10,000.

The average in-state tuition and fees for a public four-year college in Ohio is $10,000. In one year, the gift will be gone. Strike that, in less than a year it will be gone. Adding room and board to the mix increases the cost to $18,000 per year. If he doesn’t get need-based financial aid, back of the napkin, Tyler could owe $62,000. And that is if he doesn’t take any excess credits or need more money to live on. Also, when he graduates, he’s looking at making less than half of what he would have made as a dental hygienist. Recent graduates with a psychology credential only make an average of $31,000 a year, one of the lowest paid bachelor’s degrees.

That is if he graduates in four-years. Of the students over the age of 24, who started at two-year colleges, under 10 percent actually finished their four-year degree in 6 years. And what if working and going to school for 4 to 6 years gets to be too much for Tyler? He could be left with substantial debt and no degree.

None of this means that Tyler shouldn’t follow his dream and get a degree in psychology. But he should know what he is getting into. Tyler—like all students—needs reliable information, including on labor market outcomes, to make the best decision about his educational future.

To watch the clip of Tyler telling his story, go to this link. The good part starts at minute 3.

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