Kiplinger Personal Finance magazine publishes a list annually that is their assessment of the best values in public colleges in the United States. The article for 2012 can be found here. In this post, I’ll take a look at this list and give my observations on what readers of the Affluent Student can take from the article.
As with any list of this nature, I would take it with a grain of salt. It does appear that Kiplinger has done a good job of analyzing the public schools. I like the fact that graduation rates were taken into consideration. The longer you spend in school, the more it will cost you so having a high percentage of students graduating in four years is pretty important. The list does include the average cost before and after need-based aid is applied, so you can look at how your offer stacks up against the average student at your chosen university. Another nice figure to have is the average debt at graduation; every school on the top 100 list that provided this figure was over $10,000.
I believe one of the most important lessons from this list can be found in the columns on out-of-state costs. Even after aid has been applied to the equation, in almost every case the cost per year for out-of-state students is at least twice the in-state rate. Remember that the figure given is the cost for a year, not the cost for four years. As parents, you need to ask yourself and your student these tough questions. Do you really believe that you should pay twice the amount that other parents are paying just to send your child to that school? Don’t you think that your child could find a comparable degree somewhere in the state that you live in, especially at half the price? Is the “college experience” your child receives across the state line really that much more valuable than the one they could have in their own home state? Do you think that potential employers will pay more for a degree from the out-of-state institution?
So how can you use this list? For parents of all ages, especially younger children, you can use it as a planning tool. Begin to identify the schools that your child might attend, use the appropriate “cost after need-based aid” figure (in-state or out-of-state), multiply by four and that’s the amount out of pocket that you could expect to pay for four years of attendance if your child started today. Since college costs have historically grown at a 7% rate annually, multiply the number of years till your child starts school by 7% then apply that factor of growth to your total cost for a rough guess at how much it will cost for your child to go to school. Once you see this number, you can begin to understand why it is so important for your child to excel in school. Scholarships for high-performing students make this amount go away very quickly, whether attending an in-state or out-of-state school.
A final note on this table – even at the school with the highest average debt at graduation ($35,671 at UNH Durham), the amount is not insurmountable. If your child worked their way through college instead of partying their way through, then it is likely that they could earn enough money to cover this debt over a four-year timespan. That being said, debt is not a requirement for those who are really serious about their college education.