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Making Sure College Is Worth The Cost

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The US News & World Report Best Colleges rankings, the leaderboard of competitive college admissions, are out this week. And all this week on All Things Considered, we've been talking with students who graduated from high school in Montgomery County, Md., four or five years ago.

All nine of these students faced the same questions: Where to go to college: public, private, community? How to pay for it? And now, depending on the choices they made, a new question looms: Has it been worth it?

Carlos Mejia-Ramos, at Montgomery College, voiced the concerns of many working-class and middle-class students when he said, "I don't think education should be $50,000 a year."

That sticker shock may be misleading. Columbia University, where Becca Arbacher attended, is one of only a handful that charge north of $50,000 for tuition and fees. But nine out of 10 freshmen at pricey private institutions get a discount, averaging over 50 percent.

Still, college debt, whether at public, private or community colleges, does make a big difference in many students' lives. As Evan Bonham, who studies music at NYU, told Robert Siegel, "I'm getting ready to graduate — the debt's starting to creep up on me in terms of my mindset and looking towards jobs."

College is all about expanding your options. But debt narrows options.

Research shows it can influence new grads to take a job that's not as great a fit. It has ripple effects on savings, living on your own, getting married, starting a business, buying a house and a car. Even mental and physical health. Gallup did a major poll last year of college graduates and found that those with debt reported lower well-being, not just financially but physically.

The bigger question might be: What, exactly do expensive private colleges have to offer in exchange for their high tab?

The Gallup poll, of nearly 30,000 college graduates last year, found the percentages of students who were "engaged" with their work and "thriving" in all aspects of their lives, did not vary based on whether the grads went to a public or private four-year college, not even one of the top 100 in those U.S. News & World Report rankings.

And as our colleagues at Planet Money have repeatedly reported, the choice of a college major has a far greater impact on an individual's income than the choice of college.

Taking the odds of graduation into account changes the value equation too.

In fact a recent study showed that borrowers who owe the LEAST in student loans are actually MOST likely to default.

How can that be? Those smaller balances belong to students who drop out without a degree.

In that way, the nine students we talked to are luckier than most. They're on the cusp of graduation — for the four-year students — and transfer, for the two-year students. Many, many freshmen never make it that far.

Montgomery College, the local community college, reports that 40 percent of its students either graduated or transferred within three years — that's twice the national average for public two-year colleges.

The University of Maryland, the big state university located in College Park, has a four-year graduation rate of 67 percent — also much better than the national rate of 58 percent.

Copyright 2015 NPR. To see more, visit

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