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Accuracy wanted on tuition costs

My colleague Sarah Kaufman's Style section article -- "Is college overrated?" -- was a provocative attack on the notion that college is necessary for a good life. Her examples of Americans who developed wonderful careers without much or any college were well reported, and worth reading.

I just wish she had given readers a clearer indication that the figure she cited in the story's first paragraph for college costs ("up to $200,000 in tuition, room and board") was a misleading distortion of what the vast majority of students have to pay. My fellow blogger Valerie Strauss has also been critical of the story, for different but also good reasons. Here is my take:

According to the College Board, 53 percent of college undergraduates pay less than $9,000 a year in tuition. When you add living expenses and multiply by four years, that comes to $80,000, not $200,000. When you subtract the average $5,000 in grants that undergraduates receive, that takes the total bill down to $60,000, or $15,000 a year.

That is still a lot of money, but much less scary than the figure Kaufman led with. Many high school counselors find that families are often terrified by fears of going bankrupt with college expenses, and do not give bright, college-ready students the support and confidence they need to apply to schools that would be good for them.

Surveys show that Americans routinely overestimate the cost of college. The average four-year state university for a resident of that state is going to cost less than $15,000 a year, with grants and living expenses factored in.

I know people who paid about $200,000, but they are a small minority. I wish the Style article had made that point.

Read Jay's blog every day, and follow all of The Post's Education coverage on Twitter, Facebook and our Education Web page.

By Jay Mathews  | September 14, 2010; 12:20 PM ET
Categories:  Jay on the Web  | Tags:  Post story inflates college costs, college costs, college tuition inflation  
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I only wish the $200,000 figure were incorrect. In our case, it's actually a bit understated. My daughter is a Freshman at Syracuse. Great school, but not free or even cheap - $52,000 for this one year (tuition, fees, room, board, transportation home). No grant. I'm a mid-level federal employee, yet I make too much for any assistance. Sigh. Textbooks add hundreds and hundreds to this (two "101" texts totaled $460). Heavy sigh.
Will it be worth it? We believe so, and hope so. It won't be solely or even principly for the education - as you've reminded your readers often, every accredited 4-year college gives a good undergrad education. It will be for the college experience.
We hope, and were willing to pay for. But it is more than $200,000.

Posted by: LoveIB | September 15, 2010 7:35 AM | Report abuse

$80,000 divided by 4 is $20,000. If only $9,000 of this is tuition, then any student not in a specialized field (say, studying at MIT) should be in a community college for at least a year or two. $11,000 a year is pretty expensive to live in a dorm that is possibly a firetrap, eat starchy food, and get drunk after football games.

Posted by: sideswiththekids | September 15, 2010 7:56 AM | Report abuse

$80,000 divided by 4 is $20,000. If only $9,000 of this is tuition, then any student not in a specialized field (say, studying at MIT) should be in a community college for at least a year or two or commuting to a local four-year college. $11,000 a year is pretty expensive to live in a dorm that is possibly a firetrap, eat starchy food, and get drunk after football games.

Posted by: sideswiththekids | September 15, 2010 7:56 AM | Report abuse

sideswiththekids: "...$11,000 a year is pretty expensive to live in a dorm that is possibly a firetrap, eat starchy food, and get drunk after football games."

You must have seen my daughter's dorm for her freshman year. Whatamess. Though the campus is gorgeous and many of the buildings spectacular, the dorms got the short end of the stick. Oh, and those poorly designed bunk beds....the frequent sounds of thud in the night from students falling from the top bunk. The HVAC system must have been in need of repair - heavy black dust around the vents (electric system tho'). At least one elevator would daily become stuck on or between floors. However, the campus food was actually good if one chose among the better selections.

As far as drinking after the football games, nowadays, it often starts prior to the game (the name of which escapes me for the moment). I have a son that was an EMT during undergrad and was a member in a squad that served the university. His roommate worked part-time as a checker at a grocery store near campus. My son's roommate would actually call my son some nights to give him a head's up realizing the extra busy kind of night the rescue squad should expect upon noting the massive amounts of alcohol sold. Very accurate.

Jay, this bring to mind a plea for a column. It would do a great service to so many for you to address the issue of campus drinking. Often my son would arrive on the scene to find a young student suffering the effects of alcohol poisoning, yet still refusing to go the hospital because he/she was afraid of getting in trouble either by parents or the college/dorm officials. Every freshman orientation should include, at minimum, basic info on the physiological effects of alcohol and recognizing the symptoms of alcohol poisoning. Plus, females process alcohol differently than guys. (Think rape/date rape too.) Of course, ideally, if a student is in need of an ambulance call, there ought to be some 1st offense waiver of penalty (demerits, etc.) for the student, but rather a mandatory counseling session/class. Since so many universities require on-campus living for the freshman year (unless living at home or with a relative), it would be prudent to have some kind of safety net for students that are tempted to drink.

Posted by: shadwell1 | September 15, 2010 11:16 AM | Report abuse

Jay, another thing,

The university that my son attended had a policy regarding emegencies on campus. Campus employees, such as EMTs serving at campus functions, had to a certain number to reach the campus dispatcher that would then notify campus police (don't know what others on campus) and then relay pertinent info to the city emegency personnel. Yes, my son, who did some campus work as an EMT refused do always follow such a policy Instead, he would decide if it was prudent to first call 911 and then the campus dispatcher. He made known his reasons as to why to the policy makers who said that they would take this into consideration although I don't know if the policy was ever altered. The problem is that in some situation, not only minutes matter but moments. For instance, if a student (or other on campus) passed out, had severe chest pains, whatever, by the time the emergency call actually got to the area rescue squad via the city dispatcher, having received a call from the campus dispatcher, the information utimately relayed may arrive leaving out critical information affecting who is sent out on the call (medic or EMT-B), or even what kind on equipment is taken off the ambulance and carried by the rescuers to the patient.

College costs are enormous, but some good changes don't increase costs at all. And the poor dear who does fall off one of those awful top bunks and suffers a compound fracture (sure, most bunk falls seem to result in only temporary pain) or gets hit by a car in the crosswalk on campus should get care more quickly than waiting on the campus dispatcher to dispatch all over the place. The city 911 dispatcher still notifies the campus emergency personell in lightening speed, however, the ambulance arrives sooner and perhaps better prepared for the specific situation.

Posted by: shadwell1 | September 15, 2010 12:17 PM | Report abuse

That $9k figure must be in-state tuition at a state school. UVA is $10,636, in-state.

But getting to $200k is pretty easy once you factor in the opportunity cost of holding down a full time job. When I was in school, I worked 10 hrs/wk as a waiter for roughly $20/hr. Full time, that's $40k/yr. So you have to add $30k/yr that I missed out on making since I couldn't work full time.

So now you have $120k just in opportunity cost, plus $10k/yr in tuition=$160k. Adding in room and board is iffy, because presumably you planned to live somewhere and eat something, anyway.

At any rate, once you add in the opportunity cost of not working full time, it's basically impossible to go to college for only $80k.

Posted by: afsljafweljkjlfe | September 15, 2010 12:31 PM | Report abuse

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