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College grads weigh costs of education

Graduation at Purchase College in Purchase, N.Y.

Maria Griffo, left, and Diana Das are both cinema studies majors at Purchase College. Griffo says she borrowed more than $30,000 to pay for school.

Environmental Studies major Robert Shao worries about finding a full-time job. He plans to live with his parents while he looks for work.

Delorean Briggs studied New Media at Purchase College. He worked two jobs and borrowed about $14,000 to put himself through school.

Seventeen years after dropping out of college, Kevin Higgins came back to finish at Purchase when he lost his job. He says without a college degree he could only go so far in his career.

TEXT OF STORY

Kai Ryssdal: Here's a thought to sober up all those college graduation parties: Students who did manage to cross the academic finish line are about to come face to face with the cost of the education they just completed. The first student loan bills are going to start showing up in about six months, and that'll surely spark a new round of questions about whether or not college is worth it.

From the Marketplace Education Desk, Amy Scott reports.


AMY SCOTT: In a hallway in the music building at Purchase College in New York, seniors in black gowns line up by major. In a few hours, they'll graduate in front of their parents and friends. Some have started celebrating early. You can smell it on their breath. They'll have to get serious soon enough.

ROBERT SHAO: I'm pretty concerned right now. It's kind of scary. Just coming out of college, you know. It's a lot of pressure to find jobs, and it's kind of hard.

Environmental studies major Robert Shao worries about finding work. Others are tallying how much they owe.

MARIA GRIFFO: All in all, I think it cost maybe $35,000. I think. Most of it is in loans.

Montea ROBINSON: $26,030.

DELOREAN BRIGGS: A good 14K. Not bad.

Purchase is a public college, part of the State University of New York. At $4,900 a year, the in-state tuition is at the low end of the spectrum. But seven years ago it was just $3,400.

Students like Maria Griffo wonder if they got their money's worth.

GRIFFO: If I knew exactly what I wanted to go to college for right when I was jumping in and committing to that much money, it would have been worth it.

But Griffo didn't really know what she wanted to do when she started at Purchase. She majored in film studies and then realized she wanted to be a teacher.

GRIFFO: I learned so much about the history of film and cinematography, and it was wonderful. But not very useful. Not for 35 grand. I could find that out online.

In the last few decades the sticker price of college has risen faster than just about everything else we buy, even health care. There are lots of reasons: cuts in state funding, expensive health benefits for faculty and staff.

Anya Kamenetz writes about the cost of higher education and student debt. She says schools are under pressure to build fancier dorms and fitness centers to compete for students.

ANYA KAMENETZ: As much as parents might marvel at these kinds of extravagances -- the climbing walls in the gyms, the free electronics giveaways to freshmen, or high-speed Wi-Fi in every dorm -- college presidents tell me that this is something that families are demanding.

Kamenetz says tuition is rising for a couple other reasons too. The easy flow of student loans helps mask the cost. And families still think college is the key to success for their kids. Studies have shown you earn a lot more if you go to college.

KAMENETZ: Over a lifetime, assuming you manage to get the degree, on average, it's still a good deal. And as long as people can say that, they can justify almost any price.

But we may be reaching a turning point.

Economist Richard Vedder directs the Center for College Affordability and Productivity.

RICHARD VEDDER: In our zeal to get everyone a college education, we're finding more and more people going out with a bachelor's degree that are having a hard time getting a job that fits the skills that they believe they picked up in college. And maybe the notion that everyone should go to college is one that we need to rethink in light of this labor market experience.

GRADUATION: Now the degree candidates of 2010, will you please rise and be recognized...

Of course, finding a high-paying career isn't the only reason people go to college. At the Purchase College graduation, some of the other reasons are on display on the beaming faces of parents and students like Delorean Briggs. He worked two jobs and took out loans to put himself through school.

BRIGGS: I think the experience itself was like the best experience I could possibly have. I'm actually happy that I came here. It just feels good to be leaving now.

Graduate Kevin Higgins had 17 years to try out adult life without a college degree. He decided to go back to school after being laid off from his job in retail.

KEVIN HIGGINS: If had just continued going down the path that I was going, there was always a ceiling that I'd hit as far as salary and all that. So I didn't want to do retail for the rest of my life. For me this is more of, not even so much the money, but just moving on to do something that I've wanted to do for a long time.

Higgins wants to become a teacher. Next he plans to get a Master's degree.

In Purchase, N.Y., I'm Amy Scott for Marketplace.

About the author

Amy Scott is Marketplace’s education correspondent covering the K-12 and higher education beats, as well as general business and economic stories.

Maria Griffo, left, and Diana Das are both cinema studies majors at Purchase College. Griffo says she borrowed more than $30,000 to pay for school.

Environmental Studies major Robert Shao worries about finding a full-time job. He plans to live with his parents while he looks for work.

Delorean Briggs studied New Media at Purchase College. He worked two jobs and borrowed about $14,000 to put himself through school.

Seventeen years after dropping out of college, Kevin Higgins came back to finish at Purchase when he lost his job. He says without a college degree he could only go so far in his career.

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