The Cost and Value of Higher Education

Posted: October 9, 2012 at 4:56 pm

By Ángel Cabrera and Callie LeRenard

Commentators around the nation are asking fair questions about the rising costs of higher education and the value students derive from it.  In just one decade, average tuition has gone from about 23% of median family earnings to 38% (see Bain report).  And, for the first time, student loan debt has exceeded both credit card debt and auto loans.  While the gap in earnings between those with college education and those without continues to widen, the rising price tag of a college degree is creating concerns about affordability and access.

As we investigate the drivers of these trends, we recently found a graph from the Council on Virginia’s Future that compares the actual cost to universities to educate one student with the number of degrees awarded by each university per 100 students. I was pleased to see George Mason University plotted on the sweet spot of relatively low expenditures per student and relatively high degree productivity.  Our relatively higher efficiency allows us to offer lower in-state tuition and fees ($9,620) than the other research universities in Virginia that also appear in international rankings ($11,596) and even lower than the full set of four-year institutions, ranked or not ($9,919).

Last week, the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia published data comparing the earnings of graduates from different universities.  There too, we were pleased to see that our graduates are earning relatively higher incomes than graduates from other Commonwealth institutions.  More specifically:

  • Mason’s bachelor’s degree graduates earn a median income of $39K annually compared to $34K at other VA research schools and a median of $33K at all public and private VA institutions.
  • Mason’s master’s graduates earn a median income of $58K annually compared to $48K for other VA research institutions, and $49K for all VA institutions.
  • Mason PhDs earn a median income of $74K annually compared to $57K for other VA research institutions, and $60K for all VA institutions.

These data are not perfect (as SCHEV itself noted), but they represent a commendable effort to provide transparent information to students and families about not just the costs of higher education, but its value.  And the data will hopefully serve to remind those of us in higher education that we are stewards of precious resources from taxpayers, donors and families and that we will be increasingly held accountable for our outcomes.

 

Write to presidentstaff at scullen1@gmu.edu

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