Families Face Hurdle with Costs of Higher Education

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College graduates have steadily grown in numbers the past two decades.  However, the fall of 2011 saw the first decline in enrollment in 15 years, according to a report published earlier this year by the U.S. Education Department.

The costs of higher education are growing much faster than inflation.  The average price for tuition, fees, room and board at a private institution averages nearly $24,000, or almost half of what the average family brings in each year.

For most families, money problems are the main challenge when it comes to college.  “Affordability remains a paramount concern for all of higher education, with students and families challenging institutions as never before to justify an investment of tuition dollars,” Bethany College president Dr. Scott D. Miller said in a July 17 Huffington Post blog.

“Private colleges from a branding standpoint own the word expensive,” John Lawlor, founder of the The Lawlor Group, told the New York Times in 2006. “Overcoming the price of attending is a perceived obstacle.”  The Minneapolis-based firm provides marketing and consulting services to higher education institutions.

Affordability

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Many post-recession families are struggling to make ends meet, much less save money for their kids to go to college.  While median household income, home equity and net worth are all down, college tuition costs have continued to rise, even when you consider financial aid.

“Research has shown that family willingness and ability to pay is declining,” wrote Dan Lundquist on Lawlor Group’s blog.  “Families will try harder to meet the bill if their child is talented enough to be admitted to an Ivy League school, but they are also looking at ‘financial aid safety colleges in greater numbers. More research indicates that the number of students turning down their top-choice pricey school in favor of a more affordable option is sharply on the rise.”

Students are forced to look at alternative options, such as online college. According to a study published by the Babson Survey Research Group, the number of college students enrolled in at least one online course increased this year for the ninth straight year.

That study, released in 2011, found that more than six million students are attending at least one class online—that’s nearly one in three currently registered college students.

The Lawlor Group’s own report on the topic explains this phenomenon even more directly, noting that “higher education has become less an end in itself and increasingly a means to an end — primarily an economically viable career path.”

“In calculating a college’s value proposition, families factor in outcomes as well as cost and prestige,” the report continues. “They expect proof of high graduation rates and graduate employment at acceptable salary levels.”

Social Media

Social media and technology add a new dimension for today’s college-bound students, whether they come from lower-income families or otherwise.  The question is this: Will innovation dramatically lower the cost of education in the future?

Technology and social media are changing how students receive information.  Thus, there could be ways to significantly cut costs by transitioning content delivery systems from the classroom model to the Internet and mobile.  To be sure, such a movement is sure to encounter bitter resistance from traditionalists, including teachers’ unions.

Just as the Lawlor Group study found, students are using technology to “instantly verify any claims a college makes,” Miller notes that another study shows that 72 percent of new high school seniors have used social media in the college search process.

“Colleges are well advised to update their marketing to ensure that they reach their preferred audiences with the messages they prefer,” he said.

The increased use of social media and technology, along with the rise in utilization of online college courses, students these days are learning differently than their parents did. They are less responsive to traditional lectures and more likely to rely on online sources. And “smart” classrooms offer students an opportunity to interact in real-time with peers across the globe, which Miller says is important for students priming themselves to enter the global marketplace.

“The rate of growth in online enrollments is ten times that of the rate in all higher education” said Babson Group study co-author Elaine Allen. “While growth rates have declined somewhat from previous years, we see no evidence that a dramatic slowdown in online enrollments is on the horizon.”

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