Gas station without pumps

2014 July 28

UCSB orientation

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Last week I finally had an opportunity to visit UCSB, where my son will be going to college in the Fall.  This college visit was a bit different from other ones we did together, as he had already filed his statement of intent to register (in UC jargon, the “SIR”).  So we were not deciding whether UCSB was a good place to apply, or whether to accept an admissions offer—this was an orientation session for new freshmen and their parents.

Because we don’t drive, and the Santa Barbara airport is very expensive to fly to from anywhere but LA (and somewhat expensive even from LA), we took Amtrak to Santa Barbara.  There are multiple ways to get from Santa Cruz to UCSB by train, but we took the simplest and most familiar: Highway 17 express to San Jose ($5), Coast Starlight to Santa Barbara ($51, but the price is higher if you don’t buy the tickets far enough ahead of time), MTD bus 11 to UCSB ($1.75).  (Note: the number 11 bus is not as fast as the 24X or 15X express bus, but those don’t run on Sundays, which is when we were going to Santa Barbara.  The Coast Starlight is a rather slow train, and there are bus+train combinations that are faster, but both my son and I tend to get motion sick on buses, so we preferred the train.  One could take the Greyhound to Santa Barbara for only $37, but that is about 6 hours on the bus.  One could also take Greyhound to Salinas ($12), then Amtrak 4740 bus to San Luis Obispo and the Pacific Surfliner to Goleta ($42), and MTD bus 15X  (or walk a mile and take the 11 on weekends) to UCSB ($1.75).  One could also take the Coast Starlight from Salinas to Santa Barbara ($12+$39+$1.75), reducing the bus time to the same as taking the Highway 17 express, and the bus to Salinas is probably less of a roller-coaster ride than the bus to San Jose.  The connections are not tight, so no time is saved by catching the train in Salinas—the extra time is spent waiting at the Amtrak station in Salinas.

Because it was a two-day orientation, they put us up (separately) in dorms for the intervening night.  Because we were using Amtrak to get to Santa Barbara, we needed an extra night before and after, which we also spent in a (different) dorm, managed as the UCSB Summer Inn.  All the dorms were in Manzanita Village, which is the dorm complex my son has requested.  The dorms were spacious with lots of closet space, but a bit too warm—a fan would be a useful addition to the fall dorm supplies.  The mattresses were also a bit too firm for my taste—my son may want to get a softer foam pad to put on top of the mattress.

Bus service for UCSB is not bad on weekdays, but is a bit skimpy on weekends.  Even at its best, it is not as frequent as UCSC bus service. Of course, the UCSB campus is more compact than the UCSC campus, and UCSB students mostly live on campus or a short walk away from campus in Isla Vista, so bus service is not as necessary.  Also, the UCSB campus and surrounding area is flat, so bicycling is very easy (even with the low-efficiency “beach cruisers” that southern California finds fashionable).

UCSB seems to take bicycling fairly seriously in terms of infrastructure.  There are no roads through campus, but there is a major bikeway and lots of bike parking:

UCSB has bike paths on which bicyclists have priority over pedestrians, and traffic is heavy enough during the school year that they found it useful to put roundabouts at a couple of the major intersections of bike paths.

UCSB has bike paths on which bicyclists have priority over pedestrians, and traffic is heavy enough during the school year that they found it useful to put roundabouts at a couple of the major intersections of bike paths.

Bikes have the right of way on the paths, and (unlike roads) the pedestrian crosswalks do not give the pedestrians right of way.  There are warnings and textured strips to caution the pedestrians.  Bicyclists are expected to walk their bikes when on the pedestrian paths (with frequent warnings about heavy fines), but this rule seems to be routinely ignored.

Bikes have the right of way on the paths, and (unlike roads) the pedestrian crosswalks do not give the pedestrians right of way. There are warnings and textured strips to caution the pedestrians. Bicyclists are expected to walk their bikes when on the pedestrian paths (with frequent warnings about heavy fines), but this rule seems to be routinely ignored.

There is even a separate skateboard lane on one of the main campus paths (taking up part of a wide walkway and paralleling a divided bike path).

There is even a separate skateboard lane on one of the main campus paths (taking up part of a wide walkway and paralleling a divided bike path).

Bike parking is copious, often with seas of bike parking near classroom buildings.

Bike parking is copious, often with seas of bike parking near classroom buildings.

Most of the bike parking is of a style that alternates high and low, intended for allowing tight packing of the bikes without handlebars interfering.  There is an adequate locking point for the frame, but not for the rear wheel.

Most of the bike parking is of a style that alternates high and low, intended for allowing tight packing of the bikes without handlebars interfering. There is an adequate locking point for the frame, but not for the rear wheel.

In a couple of places, the "low" version of the bike parking is installed diagonally, where there is not sufficient space for the bikes to be perpendicular.  This view shows the locking loop beside the wheel-holder clearly.

In a couple of places, the “low” version of the bike parking is installed diagonally, where there is not sufficient space for the bikes to be perpendicular. This view shows the locking loop beside the wheel-holder clearly.

In a few places, UCSB has wheel-bender racks that provide neither support for the bikes nor adequate locking points—these were clearly selected by someone who did not park a bicycle.

In a few places, UCSB has wheel-bender racks that provide neither support for the bikes nor adequate locking points—these were clearly selected by someone who did not park a bicycle.

Although the campus is compact and easy to navigate in, it is not small. A walk from the dorms my son hopes to stay in (Manzanita village) to the College of Engineering (where many of the faculty he might do research with have offices) is about a mile. Given the distances, the flat terrain, and the mild weather, bicycling is probably the best way to get around campus.

I saw a number of cyclists at UCSB, but very few wearing helmets. We were warned that even experienced bicyclists should probably avoid cycling on campus for the first two weeks of Fall quarter, as there were a lot of bike crashes during that period, often caused by new cyclists who did not know what they were doing. It seems that UCSB’s infrastructure efforts are not matched by bike safety education efforts. Bike theft is also a major problem on campus—the suggestion is to get an ugly old bike and use a good lock. There is a sale of abandoned bikes during Welcome Week in the fall, and my son will probably get a bike then, rather than lugging his from home. I think that a 3-speed with front and rear brakes is probably the ideal bike for UCSB conditions—easier to maintain than derailleurs, but more efficient than a one-speed beach cruiser.

UCSB has a few more students than UCSC (22,225 students in Fall 2013 vs. 17,203 at UCSC), and a higher proportion of grad students (12.9% vs. 8.8% at UCSC).  At the orientation, UCSB claimed to have the highest proportion of undergrads of any R1 research university, but they achieved this status only by using a non-standard definition of an R1 university, using the 62 invitation-only members of the Association of American Universities, rather than the 108 “RU/VH: Research Universities (very high research activity)” in the Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher Education, which is the more commonly used definition of “R1 university”.  UCSC is on that bigger list, and probably does deserve the status of the R1 university with the highest ratio of undergrads, which UCSB was improperly claiming.

Although UCSB has only 23.4% more undergrads than UCSC, they have a few much larger class sizes.  They have several lecture halls seating 300 or more students (Campbell Hall @ 860, Isla Vista Theater 1 @529, Lotte Lehman Concert Hall @468, Chem 1179 @354, Buchanan 1910 @306).  UCSC has 3 classrooms with 300 or more and none over 500 (Classroom Unit 2 @472, Media Theater @382, and Humanities 3 Rm 206 @301).  Unless he changes his schedule, my son will have a class in Campbell Hall in the fall: Linear Algebra.  His other classes will be tiny, all being College of Creative Studies computer science classes for freshmen, so having 10–20 students.  I’ve been suggesting to him that he delay linear algebra by a quarter or two, so that he can take the CCS physics series with the CCS physics majors.  It isn’t clear that they’ll allow him to do that, but he neglected to tell his computer science adviser that he was interested, and the CCS physics adviser was not around to talk to, so he’ll have to ask about that by e-mail, if he decides to try it.

The orientation was carefully designed to separate students from the parents, with the students talking with advisers and with other students, and the faculty hearing from administrators (and a few students).  There were a few combined sessions for students and parents, but not many (campus tour, welcome assembly, half the College of Creative Studies meeting, an Education Abroad Program presentation).  Supposedly we could eat meals together, but my son managed to make friends with a few of the other CCS students, so he had both lunches and the Monday dinner with them—I only ate with him for the Tuesday breakfast.  Incidentally, the dining hall had fairly good food—better than any of the other campus dining halls we’ve eaten at—and we were told by students that this was not a special “for the parents” thing, but that the dining hall food was routinely that varied and that good.

Most of the presentations had very little new content for me, as they were aimed mainly at parents who had not been to college (UCSB, like all the UCs, takes pride in what a large proportion of their students are the first in their families to attend college).  I did pick up a few tidbits of useful information, like getting my son to add me to the e-mails about the bills from UCSB, so that I can transfer the funds from the Scholarshare 529 plan without the delay of waiting for him to forward the bills to me.

The meeting with the CCS students and a couple of the CCS faculty was worthwhile, but sending us to the Letters and Sciences panel discussion afterwards was a waste of time—I would rather have had a chance to hear from the engineering faculty or students.

The only really good presentation was the “Packing, Prepping, and Parting” presentation for parents Monday night.  It was very entertaining, but made the strong assumption that all students would come by car.  Since packing and prepping are even more challenging for those coming by plane, bus, or train, it would have been useful to spend a little time on that. There was a brief mention of the Amtrak station in Goleta (which serves the Pacific Surfliner only, not the Coast Starlight) and no mention that MTD bus service to the train stations is limited on weekends (the move-in days), since the 15X doesn’t run on weekends.

The presentation “your student’s first year” was so generic as to be useless.  I was also rather surprised to see some copyrighted cartoons copied off the web without permission (the watermarks to show that these were unlicensed were still clearly visible).  UCSB is not so poor that they need to steal intellectual property from cartoonists, and it sends a very bad message to students about plagiarism and intellectual property to be so cavalier about copyright in an official university presentation.

The EAP (education abroad program) was one of 7 “co-curricular workshops” that we could choose among to attend together, none of which sounded very interesting.  My son fell asleep during it and I nearly did—they could have provided a lot more content in a much less boring presentation.

The Tuesday afternoon was dedicated to registering for classes, but the CCS students got that done early, so we had the afternoon to wander around campus, taking our own tour of the science and engineering buildings, which had only been pointed out as being “over there” in the general campus tour.  We did not go down to the beach, though that might have been a pleasant option to cool off.  We rarely get to the beach in Santa Cruz either—it is not big on our list of fun things to do.

On Sunday night and Tuesday night we ate in Isla Vista.  We had Indian food at Naan Stop Sunday night and Vietnamese food at Pho Bistro Tuesday night.  Both were adequate of their kind and clearly local rather than chains.  Isla Vista has about 30 eateries, all of “college student” styles, so there are places to go if the dorm food gets too repetitive, though the variety is somewhat limited.  Isla Vista does not have much else in the way of retail—students are expected to go 2 ½ miles to Kmart, Costco, Home Depot, and other shopping-center stores in Goleta for anything other than convenience store or bike store stuff.

Overall, my impression of UCSB is that it will be a good place for my son to go to school.  The CCS program gives him some small classes, good access to research opportunities, very flexible general-ed requirements, and an easy way to meet fellow geeks. He’ll have to put up with a few large classes (like linear algebra), but he’ll be past them fairly quickly if he makes good choices. The campus is well set up for bicycling, and it is not overly influenced by fraternity or sports culture (though both are more accessible than at UCSC).  The culture is a little more “southern California” than he is used to, but I don’t know if he’ll even notice the difference, other than the greater exposure of skin, which is driven more by the climate than by the culture.

 

2013 November 15

Is college worth the price?

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On the homeschool-to-college mailing list (hs2coll@yahoogroups.com) there has been a lot of discussion lately about whether private colleges are worth the $250,000 sticker price for four years.

The discussants generally divide into several camps:

  • There is no way that any college is ever worth that much.  Go to a cheaper state college.
  • No one pays sticker price—the actual cost is lower at top-ranked private schools than at state schools.
  • Why not do two years of community college, then the cheapest bachelor’s degree you can find?
  • What you are buying for that huge chunk of money is access to a network of people with money and power—it can be worth it if your career depends on access to such a network.
  • When I was a student, …

Of course, everyone is right and everyone is wrong, as is usual in such debates.  The important question is why the student is going to college—what is the point of it?  Only then can you assess whether the price is reasonable or outrageous, and whether it is worth going to college at all.

A lot of people see college as a job ticket—the median earnings of college graduates is much higher than the median earnings of high school students.  If that is the primary goal of a college education, then it is pretty easy to do a calculation to determine the return on investment of buying a college degree.  Lots of people have done that calculation (Google ROI college degree), but I’m not very interested in that view of college, nor with the mindset that sees a college degree as a purchase, rather than as road marker in one’s education.

Another common view of college is that it is a time to make life-long friends (perhaps marriage partners), and that the social opportunities of college are not to be wasted.  While I made some friends in college, and more in grad school, few of them have become lifelong friends—I may see someone from college once every 2 or 3 years, at most. Perhaps if I were a more social individual, that side of college life would have had more importance for me. For my son,  I think that the social aspect of college will be slightly more important than it was for me, but I believe he is mainly interested in finding congenial, talented groups of people with whom he can do things he enjoys (like acting, designing computer programs and hardware, discussing esoteric features of programming languages, learning advanced math and physics, and so forth). [I’d be pleased if he found a girlfriend also, though I didn’t manage that until grad school.] Finding concentrations of congenial, talented people outside colleges and universities is difficult—it’s not that they don’t exist, just that it is hard to find and join them.

Still another view of college is that it is all about book learning—getting a lot of stuff learned in a particular field or in a broad array of fields that mark one as being “educated”. This is a common view for the parents of teenagers in public schools, but a bit less common on the home school lists.  A lot of the home school parents realize that their kids can learn what they want to without needing the structure of a college—the kids have been doing it for years.  Sometimes having a course structure is useful for setting deadlines or determining the scope of a period of study, but other times having a project that needs certain skills and knowledge is sufficient motivation and guidance for the learning.

MOOCs have been a very good deal for home-schoolers, providing the structure of a course without the cost. Of course, the zero cost has a downside—a lot of kids just dabble with the MOOCs and don’t commit to really learning the material, the way they might if they were paying for the instruction.  So even if kids could do the book learning for much less money than going to college, the sunk cost of college tuition provides a powerful incentive to continue and complete the degree.  (Of course most of the sunk cost is coming from the parents, so the parents end up having to motivate the student.)

To determine what college is worth for my son, I’m mainly interested in his long-term well-being—not just the next four years, but the next sixty. I think that he might be happiest if he got a PhD and became an academic, though that career is looking a lot less attractive for the next 30 years than it did 40 years ago, when I was an undergrad—salaries have not kept pace with inflation, workloads have increased, and research grants have gotten much harder to secure.  He might be happy as a working computer engineer or programmer, though I think he’ll find that the workplace is full of only marginally competent people, unless he gets very lucky in where he works.  I think he’s more likely to find congenial workmates if he joins a startup with people he has worked well with for some time, than if he joins an existing corporate structure.  But if he works for a startup when would he have time for acting (or a life)? It would be easier for him to find a group of competent people to do a startup with at some colleges than others (Stanford, for example, has a culture of creating startups, some of which have even been spectacularly successful).  Making a successful startup without colleagues found in college seems much riskier to me.

Most of the careers that would hold his attention require at least a bachelor’s degree, so I’m beginning with the assumption that he’ll do at least four years of college.

The University of California campuses provide a pretty good education for about $32,000 a year (figure $130k–160k for 4 years when tuition inflation is included).  That looks like the cheapest path we’d consider.  The cheapest route (2 years of community college, then transferring to a state school) is not likely to work for him. He has taken some community college courses as a high-school student, and they were fine for him then, but he is unlikely to find many colleagues at his intellectual level in a community college.  If it were the only way he could afford to go to college, then he could make it work, but we’ve been saving 10% of household pre-tax earnings each year since he was born in a 529 college savings plan, so we have enough saved to give him more attractive options.

Based on “net price calculators” from top-notch private schools that my son is considering, we would be expected to pay $42k–61k a year (figure $180k–$250k for 4 years). Incidentally, those net price calculators vary a lot in their ease of use.  Several schools use a net price calculator that can use information stored with the student’s College Board login—those are the easiest to use once you’ve filled one of them out, since the information does not have to be looked up and re-entered for each college.  Unfortunately, many of the colleges my son is considering don’t use that method, so I’ve not done net-price calculations for all of them.  Some of the colleges also include some merit aid in their packages, which means that the net-price calculators are too inaccurate to get more than a very rough idea of price from anyway.

At some schools we’d be expected to pay the full sticker price, while at others the discount is about $10k. Note that some colleges expect us to pay over half our household’s pre-tax earnings each year—they really penalize you for being thrifty and saving for college.  There undoubtedly exist schools that would give him a full merit scholarship, but they are unlikely to have enough intellectual stimulation in the fields that interest him to justify the time, even if the tuition is covered.  None of the schools we looked at provided anywhere near that level of merit aid.

Is the extra $50k–$100k for four years of a private college worth it? 

Well, it depends, of course.

In some colleges, what that money buys is “country club” dorms and activity centers—which don’t interest him very much.  Given that he is not a natural socializer, the network of political connections offered by some colleges is also of little value to him.  What I believe he values is working on projects too big for one person (both in theater and in engineering) and easy access to research opportunities. Some colleges provide more of both project-based learning and undergraduate research opportunities than others, and it isn’t necessarily correlated with public/private or big/small.

The University of California campuses do not provide as much of either projects or undergraduate research as most of the private schools he is looking at.  Although the UCs  have a lot of research, the ones he would apply to also have a lot of grad students doing the research, and the openings for undergrads are not proportional to the huge numbers of students who might want them.  Just finding out about research opportunities, which often requires personal contact with the professor leading the research group, could be difficult. (I think that UCSC does much better at providing research opportunities to undergrads than the other UCs, probably because the grad students only make up 10% of the student body, but the faculty are expected to be just as productive in research as at the other UCs—so faculty have to include undergrads to have enough people working in the lab.)  The classes at UCB and UCLA (the 2 UC campuses we toured) are huge in computer science, with upper-division courses having 50–200 students in them.  It is very hard to make connections with the faculty or with other students in such huge courses.  Acting at UCLA also looked to be almost impossible for non-theater majors—even theater minors couldn’t get roles (according to the theater majors we talked to).  The acting minor at UCB looked much more reasonable, though.  So access to faculty, to projects, and to research may be better at several of the private schools we looked at—that could be worth the price differential.

I also think that some of the private schools are more likely to provide the emotional support that my son might need to get through 4 years of college.  I’m not thinking of formal services like counseling or health care, which may be just as good or better at the larger schools, but of a sense of community and students feeling like family, rather than a random collection of strangers struggling alongside one another.  Different campuses really had a different feel to them when we visited.  Some felt like family, some like business partnerships, some like academic competitions, some like sports bars, and some like ant heaps with 1000s of anonymous, nearly interchangeable individuals. I think I’d be willing to pay more for a college that felt like it would be a home for him, rather than an office or a study cubicle (and certainly more than I’d be willing to pay for him to go to a sports bar).

The bottom line is that we saved enough for him to go to a private college, and if he gets into one that is a good fit, we’ll pay what it takes for him to go.  I think that the extra value is there in a few schools to justify the increased price.  Of course, there are also many, many schools that don’t look like a good fit, and that would be worth less to him than UC, but he is not planning to apply to any of those, despite the pounds of paper they have sent him in postcards and brochures. He’ll also be applying to a few UC campuses, as “safety” schools, since almost all the private schools he is applying to have very low admissions probabilities.

2012 August 18

Student debt

Filed under: Uncategorized — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 11:44
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My son will be a high school junior this year, so I’ve started paying closer attention to college costs. I’m not talking about the real cost of education at public schools, which has been remarkably stable, but about the share of it that parents and students are expected to pay, which has been soaring.

I’ve been saving since my son was born and have accumulated about 130% of our current household annual gross income in a 529 college savings plan—I’m hoping that will be enough for us to avoid having to take out loans, even if he spends many years in grad school as I did.  Most families do not live as far within their means as we do (not having a car helps, as does having scrimped for years to pay off the mortgage on a small house bought before the housing bubble), and most do not put such a high value on education, so few families will have saved as much of their income as we have for college expenses.  But low-cost college options are disappearing as states defund public colleges (which some see as a successful attempt kill off universities and turn them into training mills and job security for middle managers), so more families are going into debt to pay for college.

For the past 3 months I’ve been collecting articles about student debt, starting with a story from the NY Times by Andrew Martin and Andrew W. Lehren: Student Loans Weighing Down a Generation With Heavy Debt – NYTimes.com and Cost of College’s commentary on that article.  The story can be boiled down to a sentence: Student debt has gotten huge and will be a major economic problem in coming years.

Student loan debt is not just a problem for youngsters just out of college. More and more older people are still paying off student loans for themselves or their children, interfering with saving for retirement (which will affect a lot of baby boomers, as pension funds were often woefully underfunded, relying on the huge investment returns of the 1990s that have now evaporated). Some people are even having their Social Security payments reduced to pay off student debt, making retirement even more precarious.

Much has been made of student debt now having gotten larger than credit card debt. The crossover happened around the beginning of 2010, as credit-card debt dropped from its peak around the beginning of 2009 to still high, but more rational levels of 2003. The article Student Debt bubble delinquencies surge shows graphs of the linear growth of total student debt from $200 billion in 2003 to $900 billion in 2012.  It also shows increases in the dropout rate and particularly high dropout rates in the for-profit colleges, which are the main pushers of enormous student debt.  It also plots delinquencies, which have been edging upward, though still not as high as for credit cards.

The NY Fed has some very nice graphs of Household debt by type, including some that show differences in per capita debt for different states.  California stands out as having the highest per capita debt, but that is almost entirely due to the high mortgages and home equity loans in California.  Student loan debt is much higher in states that defunded public universities sooner (like Michigan and Pennsylvania).  Auto loan and credit card debts are more uniform across states (except Texas, where car loans per capita are double elsewhere, being even bigger than student loans). Collateral-backed debt (mortgages, home equity loans, and automobile loans) are still vast majority of consumer debt in the US, but student loan debt has been growing from a negligible amount to more important than credit card debt.

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau issued a 132-page report on private student loans on 2012 July 20, though the private student loan bubble seems to have already collapsed along with the subprime mortgage market (both were fueled by the same securitization of low-quality debt). The market was $5 billion in 2001, $20 billion in 2008, $6 billion in 2011—that refers to loan origination, though, and most of the debt has been accumulating.  The private student loan market has been particularly lucrative for the for-profit colleges, but private student loans make up less then 15% of outstanding student debt, which is dominated by Federal student loans. One interesting observation is that many students taking out private student loans had not exhausted the Federal loans (particularly unsubsidized Stafford loans) available to them, despite the generally better terms of the Federal loans.  The report attributes this in part to marketing by the lenders that blurred the distinction between Federal and private loans, despite some major differences (like fixed interest rates for Federal loans but adjustable rates for most private loans—or fixed rates that are much higher than the rates for Federal loans).  Fixed rates for private student loans varied from 3.4% to 14% and variable rates from 3% to 19%, while Federal Stafford loans had a fixed 3.4% rate for subsidized and 6.8% for unsubsidized loans.  For the past couple of years, the unusually low interest rate environment has made the average adjustable rate loan slightly cheaper than the Stafford unsubsidized loan, though looking over a longer time period, only the most creditworthy borrowers could have gotten an adjustable rate that was better than the fixed Federal rate.  I’ve not read the entire report, but it seems to be implying that the private student loan market is predatory and needs some consumer-protection regulation, particularly for the vulnerable students at for-profit colleges (who I would argue have already been selected for extreme gullibility by the fact that they registered at a for-profit college).  The for-profit colleges are a growing part of college enrollment, though, as public colleges get slashed by legislators (thanks in part to lobbyists for for-profit colleges) and larger fractions of college-age students enroll in college.

The Chronicle of Higher Education summarized the report and subsequent Congressional hearings as calling for making the private student loan market more consumer friendly.  Undoubtedly a good idea, but kind of closing the barn door after the horses have been stolen.

In order to get grant aid or student loans (often misleading called “financial aid” though the loans more often hurt the students than help them, by encouraging them to pay more for college than they can afford), students’ families usually need to fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid form.  All students going to college are advised to fill out this form, unless their families are multi-millionaires (Mitt Romney probably wouldn’t fill out the form, since it requires disclosing information from income tax returns).  Even if students aren’t eligible for federal aid, many colleges use “Expected Family Contribution” computed from FAFSA data to figure out how much other aid to give—even so-called “merit aid” is usually based in part on whether the college thinks that the student can afford to attend.  About 80% of families with dependent undergrad students fill out the FAFSA (and probably 95% or more should do so). Different high schools have very different fractions of their students completing FAFSA forms, either from differences in fraction of students going on to college or differences in the quality of college guidance at the high schools.  The US Department of Education provides summary information about FAFSA completion by high school—you can look up the high school your student attends, or do whatever computations you can convince spreadsheet programs to do, since the data is released as spreadsheets.

Too many parents, though, are urging their kids to “think big” and are not paying enough attention to the real price. One approach to making college financial aid less confusing (and students less likely to fall victim to predatory lenders) is to simplify and standardize the statements colleges make about their prices.  The Obama administration has proposed a standardized “shopping sheet” that most colleges will probably use (since they have to for students with military benefits).  These may make college financing a little less confusing, though the high-tuition/high-aid model being pushed for the past decade or two and rapidly rising tuition rates have made it almost impossible for a parent to know how much a student’s education is going to cost at any given school.

The Cost of College blog post The twin problems of rising debt and falling wages for college graduates discusses the further problem that students with large debts are not finding jobs good enough to pay off the debt.  The problem is no limited to those students bilked by for-profit colleges into borrowing huge amounts for low-quality education in useless “business” or “communications” programs—even students with high-quality degrees in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) fields from good universities have difficulty.

The problem of finding jobs for STEM students has been discussed in various forums read by scientists: Helping students turn degrees into jobs — ScienceMag and The Commission on Pathways through Graduate School and into Careers. A big part of the problem is that industry stopped hiring (indeed laid off) many scientists, and the pipeline for production of PhDs and postdocs is set to produce many more scientists than the remaining job market can absorb.  This is particularly a problem in biology, as NIH has favored funding postdocs and temporary soft-money research positions for decades, destabilizing academic and research employment for biologists and creating a huge cadre of trained biologists with no permanent positions for them to be employed in.  (The pharmaceutical and biotech industry has not helped by rapidly reducing their investment in research and development.)

One bright spot is that my son is thinking of majoring in computer science and their graduates are still in demand both in industry and academia, though computer science seems to go through roller coaster rides in popularity, with more extreme fluctuations than almost any other field.  If we are near a peak in popularity now, we’ll probably be at a trough when my son get out of grad school.  He’s doing it for the intellectual interest, not the job market, though, so that is not a concern for him.  Also,  I suspect he’ll be among the top 1% of CS students, so I’m not too worried about his employment opportunities even if the job market is down.

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