The Wall Street Journal. August 1, 2014.
More parents are sending their children to two-year colleges, but will this negatively impact their children’s future earning power?
According to Sallie Mae’s “How America Pays for College” study released this week, enrollment in two-year public colleges has skyrocketed in just the past four years: In 2010, 23% of families reported having children enrolled in a two-year public colleges, but this year, those numbers had ballooned to 34%. Meanwhile, enrollment in four-year public schools has slumped from 52% in 2010 to just 41% in 2014. “This is one of the ways families are keeping their spending down,” says Sarah Ducich, co-author of the Sallie MaeSLM +0.79% study.
Indeed, sending your child to a two-year school does save money. Families of children enrolled in two-year public schools report spending just $11,012 a year on college (note: this is what they paid for college, not the sticker price of the college), while families of children at four-year public schools report spending almost double that per year — $21,072. For private four-year schools that spending jumps to $34,855. And, of course, those numbers are compounded by the fact that it typically takes longer to get a degree from a four-year vs. two-year school. “You can definitely save money doing this,” says Catherine Hawley, a Monterey, Calif.-based certified financial planner.
But the question is: Does sending your kid to a two-year college pay off in the long term? The answer: It depends.
If the student plans to stop after getting an associate’s degree, the first part of the equation to consider is how much money those with an associate’s degree vs. a bachelor’s degree make — and the difference is significant and becomes more pronounced as the years go by. The average worker with an associate’s degree and little experience makes an annual salary of $37,100 vs. $46,900 for someone with a bachelor’s degree — a 26% difference. But fast-forward down the road a few years when that worker has 10 or more years of experience and the discrepancy between what the average worker with an associate’s degree and bachelor’s degree earns is nearly $30,000 per year — a difference of more than 50%.
Thus, even with the added student loan debt, it probably still pays to get a bachelor’s degree. Consider this: A student who graduates with $30,000 indebt from a four-year school (this is roughly average and nearly seven in 10 college seniors graduate with debt) might pay about $345 a month in student loan payments over 10 years (at total of more than $41,000, considering a 6.8% interest rate); a student who graduates from a two-year school debt-free — as roughly 60% do — won’t have any student loan payments.
But even then, the premium that employers pay to bachelor’s degree recipients likely makes it worth it, as bachelor’s recipients earn an average of $9,800 more per year than someone with an associate’s degree in their first five years of work, which more than makes up for the over $4,100 a year they pay out in student loans. What’s more, the higher salary that bachelor’s degree holders earn after 10 or more years of work is even greater.
Of course, this is just one example, and there are many ways this math might not work in your favor, like if you take on too much debt (Mark Kantrowitz, the senior vice president and publisher of Edvisors , notes that students should not take on more debt than the their annual expected starting salary upon graduation) or certain types of jobs. For example, those with bachelor’s degrees in jobs like bank teller, front desk receptionist and retail sales associate don’t get a long-term benefit in salary for their degree, the PayScale data showed.
But many families look at this two-year degree in another light: as a stepping stone to a four-year degree. And this, of course, can make a lot of financial sense as the annual out-of-pocket cost at a two-year school is about half what it is at a four-year school, so spending a couple years at a two-year school — then transferring into a four-year institution for your bachelor’s degree — may save you thousands of dollars.
Using the average college costs from the Sallie Mae study, a person who spent two years at a two-year public college and then another two at a four-year public college would save about $20,000 over attending the four-year public college for all four years — and end up with the same degree and salary premium.
But the reality is sometimes a bit different.
Kantrowitz points out that, in many cases, the credits from the two-year school don’t smoothly transfer to the four-year school, which means that families will have to pay for far more schooling at the four-year institution than they bargained for. Credits may transfer more easily in some states, like Pennsylvania and Florida, which have agreements between some community colleges and public four-year institutions about transferring credits, Kantrowitz points out. Other states may prove much harder and thus costlier. “It may not save you as much money as you think,” he says.
And worse still, only about one in five students who enroll in a two-year college with the intention to get their bachelor’s degree down the road end up actually getting their bachelor’s degree within six years, according to research from Edvisors — that’s compared to two-thirds of those who start off at a four-year college.
Kantrowitz says there are a variety of reasons for this, including financial pressures from the high cost of the four-year school. Bottom line: It can sometimes pay to go to a two-year institution, particularly if you plan to finish your education at a four-year institution, but you need to make sure that you are motivated enough to actually make the switch to a four-year school.