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Higher ed is worth expense (if it’s completed) 

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click to enlarge A credential’s worth isn’t neatly expressed in spreadsheets and numbers. - SHUTTERSTOCK.COM
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  • A credential’s worth isn’t neatly expressed in spreadsheets and numbers.

Even in the face of mounting student debt and rising tuition costs, a college degree is still worth the price of admission — but that value is not without its caveats, according to a report prepared by the Colorado Department of Higher Education.

The inaugural “return on investment report,” an annual cost-benefit analysis mandated by the state Legislature in 2018, aims to help Coloradans understand their options and maximize their higher education investment (tinyurl.com/CDHE-study18). The report’s data “clearly shows” that higher education is worth the investment “as long as students finish what they start,” according to the report’s introduction, signed by Gov. Jared Polis and Angie Paccione, CDHE executive director.

“A credential’s worth isn’t neatly expressed in spreadsheets and numbers — it depends on where a student goes to school, how long they attend, what they major in and, most importantly, if they graduate,” the letter reads.

The report found that the proportion of students taking on debt, as well as the average amount, has leveled off at four-year colleges and even declined at two-year schools. Countering national trends, just 10 percent of Colorado undergraduate students at four-year institutions took on more than $40,000 in debt, with even lower rates and averages for community college students.

About 75 percent of all Colorado jobs and 97 percent of those at the top — those with high growth rates and that pay a living wage — require advanced education and training, according to the study.

Arts, humanities and communications programs made up 38 percent of enrollment among Colorado public college students in fall 2017. But of the seven program categories analyzed in the report, that one had the second-lowest earning potential, with the typical graduate making an annual salary of about $50,100 after 10 years.

“Throw in education degrees ($45,200) and social and behavioral sciences and human services ($52,900), and 50 percent of all four-year college graduates earn less than the average person with a two-year associate’s degree ($54,600) after 10 years in the workforce,” according to a July 30 analysis published by The Colorado Sun.

However, although liberal arts graduates typically earn less immediately after graduation, they boast a higher long-term earnings profile than graduates with more vocationally oriented degrees, and many liberal arts students take time to give back after graduation, says Leslie Weddell, director of news and media relations at Colorado College.

Schools like CC have high enrollment rates among organizations such as the Peace Corps and Teach for America, Weddell says, and CC offers the Public Interest Fellowship Program, which allows students to work for a variety of nonprofit organizations in Colorado.

“I can’t stress this enough — the value of a college education is far more than one’s income after graduation,” Weddell says.

Conversely, UCCS officials felt the report established that a degree from the public research institution remained one of the top higher education investment choices in Colorado.

“We believe that with our combination of academic rigor, affordable tuition and robust financial aid, we set our students up for success,” UCCS Chancellor Venkat Reddy said in a statement.

The median salary for a UCCS alum working in Colorado one year after graduation is $37,764 — higher than the median salary among all other state educational institutions, according to a report compiled by Jared Verner, UCCS director of communications.

Those graduating from UCCS with a master’s degree earn a median salary of $50,996 one year after graduation, and a UCCS doctoral graduate will earn $88,660 — 41 percent above their doctoral peers — one year after graduation, Verner says.

In the past five years, factoring in inflation, the average debt load for an undergraduate degree at UCCS has dropped 9 percent to $16,589 — the fourth-lowest in the state, Verner says.

Two-year degrees allow people to enter the workforce more quickly while incurring far less debt — but even a student pursuing a four-year degree could end up saving the equivalent of an entire year’s tuition at most four-year colleges or universities by taking those first two years at Pikes Peak Community College, as PPCC’s tuition is less than half that of a four-year university, says Karen Kovaly, PPCC communication coordinator.

PPCC offers certificates and associate degrees in many in-demand skilled trades, including HVAC, construction, welding, diesel mechanics and auto body repair, Kovaly says. These students very often have jobs lined up even before graduating, she says. 

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