Times Union Op-Ed: Studying Up on College Facts

Laura L. Anglin and Rev. Joseph L. Levesque

Michael Dannenberg exaggerates the facts for shock value in his Nov. 16 commentary, "Colleges need a lemon law." As students and their families visit campuses this month, and as students polish admission essays over the Thanksgiving holiday, it's important to set the record straight.First, New Yorkers are fortunate to have such a diverse array of higher education options, from more than 100 private, not-for-profit colleges and universities to the public campuses of the state and New York City university systems. This diversity means that students can find the college environment and academic program that is best for them.Second, financial aid makes looking at "sticker prices" an inaccurate comparison. For example, according to College Board data, net tuition at private, not-for-profit, four-year colleges and universities is 8.6 percent lower ($1,120) than five years ago, in constant 2009 dollars. Nationally, eight in 10 students receive some form of financial aid, and in New York, independent colleges and universities provide approximately $5.50 in college-funded financial aid for every $1 of federal and state grant assistance that goes to their students.This makes it possible for almost one in three New Yorkers (27 percent) enrolled full-time at an independent college to come from a family than earns less than $40,000 annually. We encourage families to ask the financial aid office at the college of their choice about grants, scholarships and government-backed student loans.Third, families have several meaningful resources at their disposal as they seek to learn more about their college options.For example, families can evaluate colleges according to the percentage of students who complete their degree within four years or other metrics using the University and College Accountability Network (http://www.ucan-network.org/).This is important to consider, especially when more students attending New York's independent colleges and universities complete their degree faster than other educational options in the state, which reduces the opportunity costs of added years in school. The National Survey of Student Engagement is another tool (http://nsse.iub.edu/NSSE_2009_Results/).Fourth, additional specifics about Mr. Dannenberg's comparison of Niagara University and Binghamton University may be of interest. Ninety-eight percent of Niagara students receive financial aid, with an average of $19,508 per year for all incoming students.Further, the mix of academic majors at Niagara is considerably different from that at Binghamton. Many Niagara students plan to pursue careers in the helping professions, which typically have lower median salaries than those in fields such as engineering.Nine in ten Niagara students who graduated in May 2008 were working full or part time six months after graduation, compared to the national average of 75 percent. In addition, 47 percent of students from that same class pursued advanced degrees, compared to 21 percent nationally.Still, oversimplifying the benefits of a college degree by equating it to the median incomes of a college's graduates shortchanges the value of a higher education.As Mr. Dannenberg himself points out, "higher education is about more than future income." College graduates volunteer more, vote more often and participate more in their communities. A college education is also the most effective way of transcending distinctions -- of race, ancestry, or wealth -- that can fragment our society.Finally, a last word on student loan default rates: According to the U.S. Department of Education, just 3.7 percent of graduates from private, not-for-profit colleges and universities nationally were in default in 2007, one-third the rate of for-profit, proprietary institutions (11 percent).We offer these perspectives so students and their families can visit the campuses of their choosing, ask questions and make the decision that is best for them.