Private College Costs 4 Times More Than Community College: Is It Worth It?

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New data from the College Board show that the cost of a four-year private college averages $43,921. The average price for a two-year community college, based on the same research, is $11,438. Is one a better deal than the other?

The College Board calculation includes tuition, room and board. However, presumably some students do not live on campus, and two-year students may not live near a campus at all.

No need to guess whether it is better to spend two years or four at an institution for higher education. Part of the answer is whether people finish in the allotted time to complete either the associate degree or the bachelor’s degree. The College Board has done the math:

Taking more than two years to earn an associate degree or more than four years to earn a bachelor’s degree has financial implications beyond tuition and fee expenses. Forgone earnings from reduced participation in the labor force constitute the largest portion of the cost of college for most students. The more quickly students earn their degrees, the more time they have to earn college-level wages and reap the financial benefits of postsecondary education. Bachelor’s degree recipients between the ages of 25 and 34 had median earnings 66% ($17,636) higher than those with high school diplomas in 2014 (U.S. Census Bureau, 2014 Income Data).

Students who pursue a bachelor’s degree generally do have higher salaries than students who stop after only an associate’s degree. However, students who complete the community college two-year program and move on to complete a four-year program at a state school save money on total costs for education and often acquire much needed academic skills that make it possible for them to acquire a bachelor’s degree within four years.

Parents have long feared that a liberal arts degree will not translate into a secure well-paying job after graduation, and studies now support the disparity in post-graduate wages. People with high grades in software engineering are more likely to find financially rewarding work than a major in art history or anthropology.

As is the case with all broad studies of economic behavior, the results cannot capture the outliers. No amount of research from the College Board can forecast the results of a man or woman who does not go beyond the eighth grade but becomes a billionaire, or the person with a Harvard degree who ends up below the poverty level.

A private college education may give the graduate bragging rights, but for many young people, that was never enough by itself.

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