With student debt at a staggering $1.3 trillion, many families are facing a huge financial dilemma: their final springtime decisions about college enrollment and acceptance. The NPR Ed team teamed up with Weekend Edition to answer some listener questions about debt and degrees.
Waiting on the numbers
Marcy, from Union City, N.J. has twin girls going off to college in September.
"My question is: Why is it that universities and colleges wait so long to give the financial aid package? First deposits are due May 1 and we still haven't received the financial aid packages for half the schools that accepted my girls."
This is a common complaint. Colleges are increasingly practicing what's called "enrollment management." They are trying to assemble an incoming class that is as talented and high-achieving as possible, to ensure the college's prestige, but also the one that will contribute the most revenue. In addition, colleges have to predict how many of the students they accept will actually enroll, which is more difficult these days since many students are applying to more colleges than ever. When it comes to private colleges, nearly 90 percent of incoming freshmen get some kind of discount, hovering over 50 percent of the cost.
But this lack of transparency in pricing is especially hard for families who are feeling the pinch economically.
Middle class squeeze
Abby Goldfarb of Dallas has a daughter about to enter college this fall. And here's what she thinks of the financial aid landscape:
"The wealthy in this country are able to write checks and cover the cost of tuition ... and colleges are very, very generous to people making under $60,000 a year in this country. And heaven forbid you're making in that middle-class $100,000 a year range."
Almost everyone has trouble paying for college. It is true that middle-class families are less likely to qualify for need-based Pell Grants, and can't pay out of pocket the way the wealthiest families can. But, a mitigating factor is that middle-class students are more likely to finish their degrees and pay off their loans, compared with low-income and first-generation college students.
New York state's recently announced free-tuition plan has been pitched quite consciously at the middle class. It is designed to cover families earning up to $100,000, rising to $125,000 once fully phased in.
Don't know much about philosophy
Heather Feaga wrote to us on Facebook:
"Don't ever get student loans. Period. And don't get a degree in art, or philosophy, or history, or something that you will very unlikely get paid real money for."
It's true that there's a relationship between college major and your projected earnings after graduation. Engineering grads top the list.
But it doesn't necessarily follow that everyone should rush into technical fields, or choose any college major based on earnings alone. For one thing, economists will tell you that the right "fit" between a person and a job is a key driver of success and productivity. One example: When people graduate in a recession year it drags down their earnings long term, and one reason is because of job mismatch — people are desperate and take the first job they can find.
Plus, recent research by the Association of American Colleges & Universities, a trade group, found that humanities and social science majors closed earning gaps with their business-major classmates by mid-career.
More than just four years
Aaron Smith, of Akron, Ohio, teaches English composition at a four-year college.
"There are a lot of students who seem to feel like they have to be there, and a lot of times I feel like they honestly don't know why they're there. And my advice to students is: You do not have to believe the urban myth that you have to go to college. There are other options. There's lots of need for skilled jobs ... I have an advanced degree and a lot of people — plumbers, mechanics, carpenters — they make more money than I do."
Professor Smith has a point.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, some of the fastest-growing occupations in the whole economy fall into the non-bachelor's-degree category. This includes the single fastest-growing job in the country right now, wind turbine technicians. They earn over $50,000 a year, no college degree required. Other fairly well-paid examples are health care trades requiring a two-year degree, such as occupational therapy assistants and physical therapist assistants.