Shawn Hubler

Shawn Hubler: What college is worth in California

Sacramento State graduates, like these students at a 2012 winter commencement, turn out to earn more, on average, than graduates of some of the state’s pricier private schools.
Sacramento State graduates, like these students at a 2012 winter commencement, turn out to earn more, on average, than graduates of some of the state’s pricier private schools. Sacramento Bee file

Someday, and that day may never come, all of my children will be finished with college. Will it have been worth all the expense, all the overtime, all the vacations not taken?

It had better – er, I mean, of course it will.

Actually, like most parents, I’m intensely proud of my kids’ educations. My parents couldn’t afford college; their parents regarded any school beyond the eighth grade as a bonus.

But what college is worth is on many minds as tuition soars and paychecks stagnate. A middle-income American family now earns less than in 1999, adjusting for inflation, according to U.S. census data released Wednesday.

And a new trove of federal college statistics confirms that too few institutions are delivering on the promise that higher education will boost the next generation.

Conceived by the Obama administration, the College Scorecard confirms some of a modern parent’s worse suspicions. It turns out to be entirely possible to spend $60,000 a year for an undergraduate degree at a prestigious liberal arts college, only to end up earning less than you would have had you just stopped at high school. (Bless you, dear middle daughter, for deciding against Bennington College, where the mean alumni salary 10 years after enrollment is just $26,500 a year.)

The new database, which crosses income tax data with 20 years of federal financial aid information, stems from a consumer initiative in which the government was going to rank and eventually reward colleges according to their worth in the job market. Not surprisingly, university presidents rose en masse against that plan.

Even unranked, though, the statistics are compelling. (Go to collegescorecard.ed.gov for a look at your alma mater.)

And there are plenty of implications for California. Here, state lawmakers have wrestled mightily with the cost of the state’s renowned public higher education system, and new Common Core K-12 standards assume every student will need some college or other form of postsecondary education.

So every Californian is now, in a sense, a college consumer. And the new data make some shortcomings glaringly clear.

Despite all the wear and tear and disinvestment, public higher education in California is still doing its part as a social mobility engine. Low-income students made up a third to more than half of University of California enrollment, depending on the campus, and graduation rates rivaled the state’s top private schools.

For example, it’s obvious that our oversight of for-profit colleges isn’t sufficient. What a rip-off: At the University of Phoenix, the data revealed completion rates as low as 6 percent.

The company’s Central Valley campus in Fresno, where the stats were about as good as it got, graduated only about one in five students. Two-thirds had taken out student loans to cover their tuition, and those who finished had a median debt of $17,400, thousands more than if they’d gone to UC Berkeley.

At ITT Technical Institute, more than 80 percent of students had federal student loans and a median debt, if they were among the 37 percent who finished, of more than $15,000. At most for-profit schools, the vast majority of students had failed to repay their student debt.

Also striking was the lack of income diversity at the elite private schools that promise the most earning potential. At schools like Stanford, Caltech, Harvey Mudd, Santa Clara and Claremont McKenna, the data showed fewer than one student in five with federal Pell Grants, which go to students from families with incomes under $30,000.

I’m not sure what, if anything, a society can or should do about private university enrollment. But if our aim is a more cohesive state with less painful class divisions, it can’t be a good thing for so many of our most prestigious colleges to devolve into upper-income preserves.

It was, however, heartening to see that, despite all the wear and tear and disinvestment, public higher education in California is still doing its part as a social mobility engine.

Pell Grant recipients made up a third to more than half of University of California enrollment, depending on the campus, and the six-year graduation rates rivaled the state’s top private schools (with the exception of UC Riverside at about 66 percent, which surprised me).

And earnings-wise, some private schools paled next to a well-chosen Cal State. Ten years after enrollment, for example, the median salary for a student at Pitzer College was $45,300 – about $1,200 a year less than the median at Sacramento State, which charges far less.

Graduation rates were disturbingly low at some institutions. At Sacramento City College, a two-year institution, only 27 percent had finished within four years. That’s a far cry from, say, the 45 percent completion rate at Pasadena City College.

Still, an accompanying Department of Education analysis praised UCLA, UC Irvine and San Jose State in particular as three of the nation’s better deals.

The numbers come with a host of asterisks, a big one being that a bigger paycheck isn’t the only reason to get an education.

Yes, engineering schools will show higher earnings than schools that graduate a lot of English majors. But that doesn’t factor in the rewards of doing a job you love or that society values – “psychic income,” as Gov. Jerry Brown calls it. Nor does it include the educational enrichment that comes with learning to see yourself and the world in a bigger way.

Generally, though, the numbers are an education. In one sense, they are even uplifting.

Once, only the rich and connected could attend college. Now, so many of us have degrees that huge databases can be compiled from university records.

In that sense, calculating the return on a tuition investment isn’t just an exercise in smart shopping. It’s a bonus, a celebration, a privilege.

Graduation rates at state’s largest colleges

The percentage of first-time, full-time students who complete their degree within six years of starting college:

University

City

Undergrads

Grad rate

UCLA

Los Angeles

28,667

90.9%

UC Berkeley

Berkeley

25,951

90.9%

Univ. of Southern California

Los Angeles

18,087

90.7%

UC San Diego

La Jolla

23,792

86.0%

UC Irvine

Irvine

23,517

85.7%

UC Davis

Davis

26,483

81.3%

UC Santa Barbara

Santa Barbara

19,362

80.5%

UC Santa Cruz

Santa Cruz

15,695

73.5%

Cal Poly San Luis Obispo

San Luis Obispo

18,664

70.9%

UC Riverside

Riverside

18,612

66.2%

CSU San Diego

San Diego

26,625

66.1%

CSU Long Beach

Long Beach

30,440

58.6%

CSU Chico

Chico

15,106

56.6%

CSU Fullerton

Fullerton

33,000

52.4%

Cal Poly Pomona

Pomona

20,857

51.6%

CSU Fresno

Fresno

19,911

48.3%

CSU San Jose

San Jose

25,723

47.6%

CSU Northridge

Northridge

33,581

46.8%

CSU San Francisco

San Francisco

25,271

46.3%

CSU San Marcos

San Marcos

10,689

46.2%

CSU San Bernardino

San Bernardino

15,887

42.4%

CSU Sacramento

Sacramento

25,991

42.1%

CSU East Bay

Hayward

12,079

39.4%

CSU Los Angeles

Los Angeles

19,525

36.1%

CSU Dominguez Hills

Carson

11,894

28.5%

Source: U.S. Department of Education

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