published Sunday, May 5th, 2013

Kennedy: College by the numbers

The problem of college affordability has reached a tipping point.

I'll use myself as an example, both as a parent of two young boys and a member of the intensely lucky baby-boom generation.

When I graduated from Middle Tennessee State University in 1980, I owed $750 on a student loan. I paid it back with interest at the rate of $15 a month for 10 years. That $15 was about the same as my water bill.

My parents helped me a little during college by paying for my car insurance. I had a modest academic scholarship, some meager government grants and a small Social Security check due to my father's disability.

I found summer work at a General Electric air-conditioning plant in my hometown that paid about $5 an hour (about twice the minimum wage in the late 1970s and the equivalent of about $17 per hour today). I banked about $2,000 each summer to help pay for living expenses at school the following year.

Although my grades in college were unexceptional, I found a mentor on the faculty, and we collaborated on research about the newspaper business that was published in two academic journals.

I graduated with a Bachelor of Science degree in four years. The day I left school, I had a job offer in hand and two others on the table. (Not great-paying jobs, but jobs nonetheless.)

It was a different time, obviously, but I think my college experience was similar to many baby boomers'. Most of my college friends graduated in four years and found career-track jobs.

Today's college kids, on the other hand, face an array of challenges: including much higher tuition (even in inflation-adjusted dollars) and a tighter job market upon graduation. Oh, and try finding a summer job today that pays $17 an hour.

The whole risk/reward model for higher education is changing. Some states are pushing for tuition rollbacks -- the so-called "$10K-BA" is the bumper sticker slogan for this movement. Some are calling for more online courses and close tracking and reporting of post-graduate job placement.

Thankfully, the federal government has a new tool that makes it easier for today's students to research, and prepare for, the real-world cost of a particular college.

I Googled collegecost.ed.gov to see how things have changed at my alma mater in 33 years. According to the website, the average net cost per year per student at MTSU -- a modestly priced state college -- is $9,148. That's what a typical student there owes per year after subtracting grants and scholarships, financial aid you don't have to pay back. Only about 45 percent of full-time students at MTSU graduate in six years or less, according to the government website. A typical student borrows about $14,500 total for undergraduate studies. Using prevailing interest rates over 10 years, that's about $167 a month.

The U.S. Labor Department estimates that unemployment among recent college graduates is about 12 percent (the overall jobless rate for all workers is about 7.6 percent). Coincidentally, about 12 percent of MTSU borrowers default on their college loans within three years.

(If you're wondering, the average net yearly price for University of Tennessee at Chattanooga students is $12,730, about 40 percent graduate in six years or less, and about 12 percent default on their student loan payments, which average about $138 per month.)

According to the Payscale College Salary Report, an online pay aggregator, the average new graduate at MTSU can expect to make about $37,500 -- so the average student loan payment would be a bit over 5 percent of gross salary. (Honestly, this sounds like a best-case scenario.)

Every variable -- cost, debt, time -- has made college less affordable in the last 30 years. Men, especially, have withered under the pressure, earning only 43 percent of bachelor's degrees last year, according to the U.S. Department of Education.

So, what are students and parents to do about all this?

Well, first, don't panic. There's help available if you are willing to start early and plan well. Most states, including Tennessee, offer tax-advantaged 529 savings accounts that let you set aside money for a child's college education while earnings on the investments grow tax free.

Starting early is the key. As a rule of thumb, saving $200 a month for a newborn will yield about $10,000 a year (inflation adjusted) toward college expenses in 18 years. Also, state grants and federal tax credits help chip away at costs for most of today's college students.

Talk to your kids early and often about college costs. Children who grow up disconnected from such discussions often get blind-sided by college costs and entry-level professional pay. I've interviewed dozens of new college graduates with $300,000 private-school educations (counting prep school) who were applying for $28,000 a year jobs. You don't need a degree in finance to see the troublesome return-on-investment here.

And, please, spare me the lectures about the priceless virtues of $300,000 worth of critical-thinking skills.

My critical-thinking skills tell me that sales pitch is no longer working.

Contact Mark Kennedy at mkennedy@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6645. Follow him on Twitter @TFPCOLUMNIST. Subscribe to his Facebook updates at www.facebook.com/mkennedycolumnist.

about Mark Kennedy...

Mark Kennedy is a Times Free Press columnist and editor. He writes the "LIfe Stories" human interest column for the City section and the "Family Life" column for the Life section. He also writes an automotive column, “Test Drive,” for the Business section. For 13 years, Kennedy was features editor of the newspaper, and before that he was the newspaper’s first Sunday editor. The Times Free Press Life section won the state press award for ...

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