Dr. Kent Ingle: College is important and expensive. Here's how to get your best return on investment

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Picking the right college can feel overwhelming. With the increasing cost of tuition and the staggering national student debt (over $1.71 trillion), many may feel that a college degree is unnecessary. 

It doesn’t help that tuition rates have hit an all-time high over the past 20 years – increasing anywhere from 114% for private colleges to 212% for in-state public colleges. The average cost of tuition and fees for a private college is $41,411, and out-of-state students pay $25,809 for public college. Not to mention, these costs only cover one year of schooling. If you plan to attend the typical four years of college, you can expect to pay in the neighborhood of $100,000.

On top of that, Google continues to make the playing field even more competitive. Recently, the company announced a certification program that will provide a pathway for qualified individuals to receive high-paying jobs without a college degree. 

Is a college degree really worth it? Research indicates that it is. 

College graduates are given 57% more job opportunities than those without degrees. The Bureau of Labor Statistics found that individuals with a bachelor’s degree earn nearly $25,000 more than high school graduates. Bachelor’s degree holders also have a significantly lower unemployment rate than those with a high school diploma. In fact, the best paying jobs in America require a minimum of a bachelor’s degree, if not advanced degrees. 

How do you select the right college and get the best return on your investment (ROI)?

Evaluate the degree cost to your projected earnings. First, determine how much the degree program will cost compared to the earning potential of your career. If you are going into a profession that does not guarantee a high salary, you might want to opt for an in-state public college rather than an out-of-state or private college. Your ROI depends on obtaining the appropriate education related to your career. 

However, total earning potential after graduation isn’t everything. Finding a college known for the program of your career choice is also essential. When I was a student, I loved the practical application component of my degree program. As a broadcasting major, I was given the opportunity to work with a local news network that hired me upon graduation. 

Figure out graduate placement. Does your college of choice have a high placement percentage after graduation? What are the resources available to students, such as networking opportunities or job fairs? Online resources like Princeton Review provide good career placements for your desired field of study. Be sure to find out what alumni are doing after graduation. If possible, ask them questions about the program and their careers. 

Research the placement success for graduates. For example, at Southeastern University, where I serve as president, we have a 100% placement rate for our nursing students. Who wouldn’t want to pursue a degree where you are guaranteed to find a job? 

Discover what financial aid is available. There are a number of financial aid options available, including institutional scholarships, federal grants and loans. In the 2020-21 academic year, one-third of students did not fill out the Free Application for Federal Aid (FAFSA). This application determines your eligibility for financial aid. With the Federal Pell Grant, which is free money, qualifying students can receive up to $6,495. 

Take the time to research what financial aid you qualify for and be sure to fill out the applications. Your college may even offer scholarships that you can apply for or receive due to academic standing. Although your first-pick school might not provide as much financial aid as you want, you might be able to find other scholarships to help make a dent in your school bill. Many large corporations, like Coca-Cola, offer scholarships as well. 

Look for the best on-campus experience. Does your desired school offer social events that can contribute to your success as a student? Although you can’t put a price on it, a college social experience can impact the rest of your life. You might meet lifelong friends or have mentors who will help in your future career. The life lessons you learn on a college campus may be something you can’t get from living at home. 

What is the ratio of students to faculty? Will the classroom size help you get to know your professors? Faculty members are experts in their fields, and you want to be able to learn as much as you can from them. They may even be important mentors for you going forward. In my own experience, one professor made a significant impact on my life. Years down the road, he ended up becoming a professor at the college where I serve as president. 

A college degree is not for everyone. Certain professions don’t require a bachelor’s degree. However, when you evaluate the return on investment in picking the right college, an undergraduate degree will increase your value in today’s increasingly competitive job environment. 

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