Look at the cost of a degree at Penn State and it can make you a little dizzy, kind of like writing a check for a big-ticket item like a sleek, shiny sports car.
President Eric Barron has used that analogy before, exhorting students to get the most out of their educational experience, taking it for a spin and not just keeping it in a garage. The comparison still works when looking at how much those “wheels” cost and just what you get for the money.
Take about $17,000 a year and multiply it by freshman, sophomore, junior and senior years, not counting summer sessions or textbooks or room and board, and you have a base price of about $68,000. Add in a dorm room, meal plan, facilities fee, activity fee, information technology fee and books (approaching about $1,000 a semester depending on your major), and according to the university’s own college cost calculator, a bachelor’s degree in, say, journalism at University Park can run you more than $119,000.
It can give you a serious case of sticker shock. But should it?
Penn State is, undeniably, one of the highest priced cars on the Big Ten lot. Only private Northwestern dwarfs the annual tuition at $46,836, a clear Cadillac at about what a year at Yale costs.
Iowa has the Ford Fiesta of sticker prices. A full four years as a Hawkeye could run you just $32,416, tuition only. A Minnesota education is a nice mid-priced Toyota Camry on the list, at $12,060 a year or under $50,000 for baccalaureate tuition.
But Minnesota illustrates one of Barron’s issues with judgments about the Penn State costs.
Golden Gopher students might get a $12,000 bill, but they also get a subsidy from the state government of about $4,277 a year. Minnesota’s website says that’s a perk of being a land grant university. Penn State falls into the same category, the only land grant school in Pennsylvania. Ten of the 14 Big Ten schools are land grants.
Pennsylvania’s appropriation to Penn State in 2014 was $214.1 million, or about $2,577 per student. The university requested $299 million. Without that, there was a 2.7 percent increase.
Barron would like more state money, but with that outside his control, he is planning to address the price of that blue-and-white sports car in other ways, including looking at what is actually costing students money.
According to the National Center for Education Statistics, 59 percent of 2012 graduates in the United States started as full-time students in 2006, taking six years to get what is supposed to be a four-year degree.
“A 2.7 percent increase is about $400,” Barron said. “One more year is $17,000. The biggest increase in the world? Go five years. Go six years.”
Sadly, Barron said, low-income students, who often work additional jobs to pay for school, placing a heavier burden on top of their class load, are often those taking extra years to complete a degree, making their ultimate price tag higher than for wealthier classmates.
His response is a system of plans to make it easier for students to graduate in four years.
“We have a whole list of possibilities,” he said.
Those include better testing to get students placed in the right classes. Barron said they might get credit for the testing, or they might have a better shot at success by being placed in a class that suits their experience and challenges them without frustrating them and making them give up.
Another approach is making it easier to get credits over the summer. Barron talked about a program that would give students the chance at summer employment plus six credits their first year, then bumping it up to 12 credits the second summer. That’s 18 credits, about six classes, that could chop a whole semester off a student’s total bill.
Then there are $4,000 provost awards to encourage student success.
One more area is making sure students, and their families, are making smart decisions when it comes to education.
“Some borrow too much,” Barron said. Sometimes that money is a good investment in the future. Sometimes it might be lifestyle motivated, more about the dorm room than the diploma.
Barron said Indiana University had a program focusing on financial literacy. When students took out loans, they signed a paper that told them exactly how much that money would cost them per month after graduation, and for how many years. In response, borrowing went down by $20 million.
The president said he doesn’t want to discourage the borrowing. He wants to ensure it is done smartly, with an eye toward achieving the end product, a degree.
“The real tragedy is a student who starts and stops,” he said.
But that is part of what he sees as Penn State’s success story.
The university received 127,000 applications last year.
“I suspect that is significantly more than anywhere in the state, if not in the country,” he said.
U.S. News and World Report gives that top honor to UCLA’s 72,697 applicants, with five other University of California schools behind them, along with Cal State Long Beach, St. John’s University in New York and San Diego State before you hit Penn State in 10th place.
But that calculation only counts the 47,552 students who applied specifically to University Park campus. Unlike the University of California, all Penn State students, whether at the main facility or a commonwealth campus, are part of the same university, not a long list of separate institutions.
Barron said he is struck not just by the number of applications, but the number coming from students with financial needs or those who are the first in their family to attend college.
For him, the value of a Penn State education is not the price tag but the return on investment.
“Our students get good jobs,” he said, pointing to businesses that look to Penn State for careers and recruiting. Some corporations, like Siemens, have narrowed their recruiting efforts to select schools, and Barron said Penn State is one of them.
It isn’t just the recruiting numbers that tell the job story, though. Barron said student loan default rates for Penn State students are “significantly” below state and national averages.
“We don’t want to give up that value proposition,” he said.