Is College A Good Deal? It’s Hard To Really Know

Students deserve more from our higher education system.

This spring, COVID-19 upended almost every aspect of our lives. Our normal routines became anything but, and we began to adjust to a new reality of working and, for our nation’s students, schooling from home. As schools grapple with what “back to school” means this year, students still face a lot of uncertainty around what this next academic year could look like.

As a former member of the Millersville University Council of Trustees and a passionate supporter of education, I’m especially attuned to how this crisis impacts higher education. Many students (including three of my own) are eager to start or resume classes. Many have already invested significant time and money into their degree programs. Others are considering reenrolling in a postsecondary degree program to help them get back to work, or find new work amid the current economic crisis.

Now, more than ever, we need a strong higher education system that is preparing the next generation of skilled laborers and leaders in Pennsylvania. We have an abundance of leading academic institutions in our commonwealth, from four-year programs at public and private colleges and universities, to two-year associate’s programs at community colleges, to various industry-specific certificate programs at schools like Thaddeus Stevens College of Technology in Lancaster. But we also have institutions that are seemingly more focused on getting students enrolled and on the hook for tuition checks rather than helping them complete their degree and preparing them to enter a competitive workforce.

Students are leaving postsecondary institutions and certificate programs burdened with seemingly insurmountable student debt and degrees or certifications that are not helping them overcome financial hardship. Currently, data from the U.S. Department of Education shows that more than half of Pennsylvania’s students with loans are struggling to make payments large enough to keep up with loan interest, even five years after leaving school. Adding to the problem of financial instability is the fact that almost a quarter of schools in our state graduate a majority of students who earn less than $28,000 annually, which is roughly what they could have earned had they entered the workforce without a degree.

I do not think this is the expectation students or their families have when they decide to pursue a postsecondary degree, nor should it be. We can, and should, do more to ensure that we give our students the resources they need to receive a quality education and a valuable degree.

The first step is installing accountability and transparency measures among higher education institutions. Students should have access to data across several categories — such as enrollment data, completion rates, students’ abilities to pay down debt, and post-graduation income levels — in order to make informed, value-driven decisions.

By making these figures publicly available, students can better assess a school’s performance and decide if it’s the best fit for them. An overwhelming majority of Pennsylvanians, 70% to be exact, agree that these guardrails are necessary to safeguard students, so they can avoid incurring too much debt to attend “bad actor” institutions that could leave them worse off in the long run.

One of the most infamous examples of this type of institution in recent memory is Corinthian Colleges.

This now-defunct for-profit chain operated 30 schools across the country, including the Everest Institute in Bensalem and Pittsburgh. Corinthian engaged in predatory lending schemes, pushing students toward a private student loan program that had high default rates. Not only that, but Corinthian officials lied about their schools’ graduation rates and misled students about future job prospects.

Lawmakers, including Pennsylvania’s Sen. Bob Casey and Pat Toomey, have noticed these discrepancies within our higher education system and have rightly proposed a fix that would create a more balanced playing field among our nation’s postsecondary institutions. The now-pending College Transparency Act calls for the accountability controls we need within the postsecondary landscape to guarantee students can make the best decisions for their future.

In the best interest of students and families across the country, we need to make student-centric updates to our national higher educational policy. As our education system navigates these uncharted waters in response to the pandemic, students shouldn’t be left to wonder if their degree is worth the time and money they spent earning it.

Ann Womble is the executive director of the Lancaster Educational Foundation and a former community member of the LNP | LancasterOnline Editorial Board. She also is a Board member of The Susquehanna Valley Center for Public Policy. This originally appeared on LNP on August 9, 2020.

The views expressed here are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Susquehanna Valley Center.

Nothing contained here should be considered as an attempt to aid or hinder the passage of any legislation before the General Assembly.