Counting the Full Cost of College

Learn & Earn Column, Las Cruces Sun-News: Sept. 2, 2018

August was an exciting time in our town, as the streets of Las Cruces filled with the more than 12,000 students attending New Mexico State University and 8,000 more at Dona Ana Community College.

A new school year is packed full of possibilities for these students, as they pursue the college coursework on their way to a career destination. Coming alongside these possibilities is also the very real cost of those courses and the overarching cost to earn a college degree.

I know as a parent, my worries about how I was going to pay for college began shortly after leaving the delivery room with my first child. That was nearly 30 years ago.

Over those 30 years, the cost of college has skyrocketed 200%. And on average, students are taking longer to finish: three years for a two-year degree and six years for a four-year degree.

Nationally, only about one out of every two students who start college finish their four-year degree (53%), but those rates appear to be rising. They leave school with, on average, $39,400 of student loan debt, which impacts their monthly budget on average by about $351 after graduation.

Of the graduates, one in three is “under-employed,” meaning that they are holding jobs that didn’t require the degree that they worked so hard to earn and spent so much to get.

Also, there is $1.48 trillion in student loan debt held by 44.2 million adults. That figure outpaces all credit card debt by $620 billion.

The American Enterprise Institute reported that the costs for non-completion of degrees, or students who started but stopped, are also holding back the national economy by around $500 billion. Their calculations include the costs of student loans, public investments in education, unrealized tax revenue, lost time for workers, and lower expected wages than those who did complete.

The financial burdens of misalignment between education and employment are negatively impacting millions of young people. One in ten students are defaulting on their loans, handicapping their economic futures.

However, one of the great stories of New Mexico is that we have done a much better job of minimizing the negative impacts of the cost of college. We have been recognized nationally for the affordability of college, and our institutions have very intentionally controlled the cost of college tuition for their students. In fact, New Mexico State University ranks in the top 12 percent for schools that help improve their students’ economic status.

Average debt for New Mexico graduates is lower, $21,373, and is held by about half of those who finish (55%). Resources like the Lottery Scholarship and the host of federal funds available to low-income students has helped finance a system that can provide students a pretty good bang for their buck in this state.

So why do all of these numbers matter? Because unlocking the economic future for New Mexico rides on boosting our economy by investing in the education of our people. The outcome of the Yazzie court case highlights the importance of adequately funding education in New Mexico, but it’s important that we don’t think education stops at 12th grade. It simply can’t stop there.

Economic resilience and expansion for New Mexico lies in ensuring our students complete (not just attend) some level of college: career certifications aligned with industry needs, two-year technical and associate degrees, and four-year degrees and higher that are ALIGNED to the jobs here now and the ones we are trying to attract for the future.

We talk a lot about the “brain drain” of our university graduates who leave the state to pursue opportunities elsewhere. However, we would be far more successful in keeping them here, if we were to fill the gaping hole in the center of the workforce, the middle-skilled jobs. Even those who hold middle-skill credentials and degrees could go on to pursue more advanced degrees and have the earning power to either not need student loans or be in a stronger economic position to pay them back.

It’s this intersection of education and employment where opportunity for us lies as a state. Once we can holistically build the workforce for a higher-skilled, higher-wage industry, we can provide a solid platform for all of our people to successfully engage in opportunities here.

Our students will graduate at every level. They will secure employment in industries that need them desperately. They will have the financial ability to repay what student loans they may have had to take.

And, as an added bonus, we give our economic development efforts the foundation they need to grow existing businesses and attract new ones that we must have to grow our state’s economy and improve the earning power of people.

College completion at every level is the key to unlocking this future. Let’s continue to do all we can to ensure our students have the ability to finish what they start and successfully become the builders of our state’s future.