Guest Column: College choices boil down to dollars and sense

Anne Michaud

I thought I was thoroughly familiar with junk mail until we began the college-application process. Now each day I come home to four or five brochures addressed to my high school daughter, advertising a new major program or a remodeled student center or a nurturing campus life. And we’re just getting started.

Those are all wonderful attributes, but parents I know are considering schools for their children for “value” — that is, not too much expense and an excellent shot at employment after graduation. I wonder sometimes how small private colleges mailing us the brochures are going to survive. The answer is that many won’t.

Jonathan Henry, a vice president for enrollment at Husson University in Bangor, Maine, predicted in The Wall Street Journal recently that 30 percent of private colleges won’t exist in a decade.

According to the newspaper’s analysis, between 2010 and 2012, freshman enrollment at more than a quarter of U.S. private four-year colleges declined by 10 percent or more.

Harvard University business professor Clayton Christensen is even more alarmist: He predicts that half of all universities will be bankrupt in 15 years. Newsday reported on this trend last month with an in-depth look at how Long Island’s private colleges like St. Joseph’s College in Patchogue and Hofstra University in Hempstead are adapting. They are seeking new sources of revenue apart from traditional student tuition, offering courses that mirror the job market and hunting for new students outside the region.

These institutions employ 10,900 people on Long Island and enroll more than 50,000 students each year. They’re a big contributor to our local economy, but I find parents more often discussing in-state tuition at public universities or completing the first two years at a lower-cost community college. Some high school graduates are taking a year off to work. And with the explosion in online course offerings, I tell my daughter she could just attend college on a laptop in our basement.

Of course, all of this value-minded behavior from parents is partly a result of the listless economy — and if that were to change, the doomsayers might be out of business. Also, colleges and universities haven’t done themselves any favors by allowing costs to skyrocket.

Between 1970 and 2010, U.S. median family income grew 22 percent, according to the American Institutes for Research. During that same period, the cost of a degree at a public four-year school rose nearly 200 percent, and at private four-year schools, prices climbed almost 150 percent.

In fact, student loan debt topped $1 trillion in 2012, surpassing credit card indebtedness for the first time last year. If students were flashing their new degrees and walking into good jobs, that might not be so worrisome, but that’s not the case.

Then again, college graduates are doing better than those without a degree. A recent Pew Research Center report concluded that the earnings gap between young American adults with and without bachelor’s degrees is now the widest in 50 years.

One welcome response to college parents’ thrift are efforts to rank institutions by their return on investment. President Barack Obama has been talking about rating schools on measures of access, affordability and student outcomes. And three admissions consultants at have begun a blog series about “consumer-savvy” college searches.

The more analysis that cuts through the avalanche of information, the better. Brochures depicting idyllic quads in bloom are lovely, but college shoppers are minding the numbers.

Anne Michaud is interactive editor for Newsday Opinion and a member of the Newsday editorial board.