In an era of skepticism, college is still worth it

photo of an LCCC graduate walking across the stage in cap and gown to shake the LCCC President's hand.Colleges of all sizes in the U.S. have to face the facts: Americans’ confidence in institutions of higher education is declining.

Polling from Gallup released in July 2023 showed Americans’ confidence in higher education has fallen to 36%, a significant decline from where it was in 2015 (57%) and 2018 (48%). And while there can be a lot of reasons for enrollment to fluctuate, it’s true that the number of people going to college has dropped as well. Postsecondary enrollment in Fall 2021, which saw about 19 million students attending colleges and universities, was down 12% from peak enrollment of 21.6 million students in Fall 2010, according to the U.S. Department of Education. The percentage of recent high school graduates who enroll in college declined from nearly 70% in 2016 to less than 62% in 2021, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.  

There are a lot of reasons for these attitudes and the resulting behaviors to change. However, everyone knows that many decisions in our lives are driven by our ability to accumulate wealth. And that’s not a callous statement; it’s not to say Americans are money-hungry or shallow. Our ability to garner a stable and middle-class or higher income increases our chances of buying a home, supporting a family, taking vacations, having positive health outcomes and more. So, it makes sense that if the value proposition isn’t there for college, people’s attitudes toward college will be negatively affected.

While there’s no doubt people with bachelor’s and master’s degrees have an increased income in their lifetime, just looking at income doesn’t tell the whole story. Researchers at the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis in 2019 identified what they call the college wealth premium. They found that, in addition to circumstantial factors that affect how we accumulate wealth over time, the rising cost of college has reduced the value of degrees for many. The wealth-building advantage of higher education, researchers found, has declined among recent graduates of all demographic groups. It was found that among all racial and ethnic groups born in the 1980s, only the wealth premium for white four-year college graduates remains statistically significant.

Indeed, cost is a serious and rising matter of concern for most considering college. The cost of attendance at institutions of all sizes has risen in the last several decades. College Board — a nonprofit that studies access to higher education and is best known for developing and administering standardized tests — estimates the cost for four-year private and public colleges has tripled. All the while federal support has not kept pace with the rising cost, resulting in more borrowing. The skyrocketing cumulative federal student loan debt — $1.7 trillion and rising for more than 45 million borrowers — is an indication of how many Americans carry this burden.

If the risk of going to college isn’t paying off, it’s understandable that prospective students would not want to play the game.

Alright, stop everything! We’ve given you enough disheartening information. While all that we’ve just said is true, the good news is that you can still work hard in college, graduate ready to take on an exciting career and not have to carry an incredible amount of debt. In fact, in Wyoming, you have more opportunities to graduate debt-free than you might know.

Many students relieve some of the financial pressure by starting at a community college instead of a university. College Board found in its 2023 report that first-time full-time college students at public two-year colleges — for example, Laramie County Community College — have been receiving enough grant aid on average since 2009-2010 to cover their tuition and fees.

It all starts by filling out your FASFA, or Free Application for Federal Student Aid. This is the application for all federal financial aid programs. It also applies to some state programs you might be interested in, as well as scholarships and grants at your institution of choice.

Wyoming’s traditional prospective students, meaning those going straight from high school to college, will find the Hathaway Scholarship provides great opportunities for financial assistance.  Created and funded by the state of Wyoming, Hathaway is merit- and needs-based. That means you can qualify for money based on your level of academic achievement or on your financial situation. You may be able to receive up to $1,680 per semester if you meet certain eligibility requirements.

If you’re in the military or have some other reason for not going to college straight out of high school, don’t worry — you can apply for Hathaway up to four years after completing high school. Home-schooled and GED students can also apply for Hathaway. You will need your high school transcript and ACT scores to apply.

Prospective students from Wyoming who are not eligible for Hathaway can instead apply for the Wyoming Works Grant. This program is targeted toward adults in specific academic programs who want to advance their skills in areas that lead to secure employment. Wyoming students who qualify can receive this needs-based grant for up to $3,360 for the academic year.

In addition to federal financial aid and state aid programs like Hathaway and Wyoming Works, there are also other financial aid opportunities specific to Laramie County Community College students. In the past academic year, degree-seeking LCCC students received more than $15 million in financial aid assistance between federal, state and institutional aid.

The Presidential and Dean’s Scholarships are LCCC’s main recruitment scholarships, targeting graduating high school seniors. Those who earned a 3.5 GPA or higher at the end of their junior year can qualify for $1,600 per academic year and a 3.0 GPA can net you $800 per year.

More than 400 scholarships are also available through the LCCC Foundation Donor Scholarship Application. Timing is critical here; the online applications should be completed between Jan. 1 and April 1 each year for the following year. Filing by the April 1 priority date allows for full consideration.

Different programs also have respective scholarship opportunities. If you are, for example, interested in STEM — or Science, Technology, Engineering and Math — you should make sure to explore scholarships specifically for that program, which you can do on the LCCC Foundation Donor Scholarship Application.

For costs that are not covered by scholarships and grants, prospects can qualify for student loans by filling out their FASFA. The relatively low cost at LCCC means that even if you do take out loans, you can graduate with significantly less debt than you would going to a larger institution.

Going to a two-year institution can save students money as they’re beginning college careers. Average annual tuition and fees for public, in-district community colleges in 2021-2022 came to $3,800 compared to $10,740 at public, in-state four-year schools, according to the American Association of Community Colleges.

A college like LCCC is more affordable than many four-year institutions, with out-of-state students often coming to LCCC for less than it would be to stay in-state. Especially for those planning to live on campus, students stand to save more by attending LCCC than they would at a four-year college.

This is all to say that if you’re having some trepidation about going to college, we get it. But if you take the right steps, you can graduate with a degree and either no debt or a low amount you’ll be able to pay back in a reasonable amount of time. Sometimes people say, “Work smarter — not harder.” If you work smart when considering college and take advantage of financial opportunities, the risk will pay off, and then some.

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