Opinion: Students need instruction on which Georgia colleges pay off

Tour guide John Hovell (right) leads potential students and a parent on a tour of the University of North Georgia's Dahlonega campus on Wednesday, April 28, 2021. While visiting a college can help in making a decision, a recent report underlines the importance of also researching a college with an eye toward a student's future earnings. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

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Tour guide John Hovell (right) leads potential students and a parent on a tour of the University of North Georgia's Dahlonega campus on Wednesday, April 28, 2021. While visiting a college can help in making a decision, a recent report underlines the importance of also researching a college with an eye toward a student's future earnings. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Georgetown report says too many families don’t look at data on outcomes, earnings

High school seniors across metro Atlanta face a major decision in two weeks — where to commit to attending college. Logic doesn’t always play a role in their choice.

Teens can be influenced by whether the college has a winning football team or a robust Greek scene. They can be swayed by the prestige of the school and where it lands on the U.S. News & World Report rankings. It can matter whether a prospective student toured a campus on a sunny fall afternoon or a blustery cold morning.

The Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce wants low-income students, for whom college can be life-altering, to consider another factor — the payoff or return on investment each campus offers.

In a recent report, “The Colleges Where Low-Income Students Get the Highest ROI,” the center found low-income students — defined as from families earning $30,000 or less per year — earn the highest financial return from public institutions where attendance costs are lower than private campuses. The report draws on the U.S. Department of Education College Scorecard, which shares data from colleges on student aid, costs and outcomes, including completion, debt and earnings by degree and field of study.

Low-income students comprise more than a third of college students. Those teens are often the least likely to have the time or resources to delve deeply into researching and visiting campuses. Their high schools employ too few guidance counselors, and their families can’t afford independent college advisers, a growing trend among middle-class parents. While the American School Counselor Association recommends one school counselor for every 250 students, Georgia funds one counselor for every 450 students.

“College presents the most promise to low-income students and the highest reward,” said Martin Van Der Werf, a co-author of the report and director of editorial and education policy at the Georgetown center. “With 5,000 colleges, it’s really hard to sort through them. Counselors, parents and guardians have to come into the equation to help break this down with young people who are thinking about a college — because it is a huge investment.”

“You don’t buy a house strictly on emotion,” he said. “You look at the number of bathrooms and bedrooms and what houses around there are going for. But college has been a black box where you make this commitment without knowing what the outcome will be.”

The Georgetown study shows low-income students earn a lower return on investment than all students across public and private institutions and degrees, largely because they tend to earn less as adults. A 2021 study found low-income college grads have fewer connections and less cultural, social and economic capital to draw on during job searches. They accept positions that pay less and for which they are overqualified because they have to start earning money quickly.

Among institutions that primarily award bachelor’s degrees, the Georgetown study found public colleges lead to the highest return for low-income students during a 40-year timeframe — $951,000. If students attend private nonprofit institutions, on average, the return over 40 years is $863,000. If they attend for-profit colleges, the return is $763,000.

But there is great variation. Many highly selective schools give low-income students a hefty return on investment, but such elite schools enroll few poor kids. For example, the 40-year return from an Emory degree is $2,181,000, but the report notes that 1 out of 5 students there is low-income. The return at Georgia State University, where half the students are low-income, is $975,000. However, the Georgetown report shows that Emory graduates 88% of its low-income students, while GSU graduates 54%.

“Most highly selective colleges have very high graduation rates, and, if a student goes, there is a very high chance they are going to graduate,” said Van Der Werf. “It always pays off to go to the best college you can if it’s a good fit. One of the things this study shows is that in large metro areas like Atlanta, there may be a half-dozen colleges offering essentially the same degree but with widely varying payoffs. You are not going to make your decision strictly by the expected payoff when you get out, but it ought to be among the considerations.”

He urges students to look closely at for-profit schools that invest heavily in marketing. “They may have exactly the opportunity you are looking for and they are good at selling it. But the schools are very expensive, and many people don’t end up finishing,” said Van Der Werf. “We need a comprehensive career counseling system to help potential students determine whether a college program is worth the investment.”