College Debt: Is It Worth It?

Large families calculate tuition strategy.

(photo: Shutterstock)

The contracts are due May 1, but the struggle to cover costs isn’t over.

Erin Vander Woude, a mother of 10 in Knokesville, Va., tackles college tuition and student-debt issues with a blend of practical and spiritual tactics: “It’s a huge amount of money to send your kids to college, but they all have summer jobs, and we all pray for guidance from God.”

Last year, Erin and her husband — both graduates of Christendom College in Front Royal, Va. — managed to send their three oldest children to their alma mater simultaneously, courtesy of the sibling-discount program.

“The oldest is about to graduate from Christendom, and two more just started as freshmen. We took advantage of a 25% tuition discount for the first sibling and 50% for the second,” reported Vander Woude, an occasional home-schooling mother.

College tuitions are going through the roof, and student debt isn’t far behind, ramping up the financial burdens that have led many graduates to delay the key milestones of adulthood, like marriage and buying a home. Parents like Erin Vander Woude, as well as students and college administrators, have been forced to rethink financial plans and generate effective solutions.

According to the U.S. Education Department, in 2008-2009, federal student-loan disbursements to U.S. colleges rose by 25% to $75.1 billion in just one year. And experts say that federal loans linked to tuition have helped to accelerate the cycle of higher price tags and rising debt.

“The other stubborn fact is that the emotion that schools are exploiting — the love of parents for their children and their (perhaps misbegotten) belief that their choice of college will influence whether the kids lead happy and fulfilling lives — is inexhaustible,” said Andrew Ferguson, author of Crazy U: One Dad’s Crash Course in Getting His Kid Into College.

Starting Out With Debt

Typical college graduates now begin their careers with an average debt of $24,000. As the federal and state governments look to reduce their budget shortfalls, Pell grants will take a hit, and public universities have already announced tuition hikes.

Catholic colleges, including relatively new, tradition-minded institutions like Christendom, Thomas Aquinas College and Ave Maria University, grapple with similar issues, as well as some unique challenges.

The majority of orthodox Catholic colleges have limited endowments and seemingly little wiggle room for generous financial aid. Some do not participate in federal loan programs. Yet many of their students come from large families that struggle to balance their desire for a Catholic college education with tough budgetary constraints.

“Christendom College, from its founding, made a prudential decision not to accept any federal funding, including student loans. It was the desire of the college to be free of any possible federal interference in order to be authentically Catholic,” explained Timothy O’Donnell, the college’s president.

The fateful decision to “go forward in faith,” said O’Donnell, led Christendom’s administrators to “work very hard to make up for this lack of funding, particularly in the area of student financial aid. If we are faithful to our mission to strengthen and help restore Catholic higher education, we trust that the Catholic faithful and men and women of good will will support our effort.”

Thirty-five years after its founding, Christendom has begun enrolling the children of earlier graduates, and its student body has expanded.

Across the country, near the California coastline, Thomas Aquinas College, which features a highly regarded “Great Books” program, has also weathered the tough early years of growth.

Thomas Aquinas proudly notes that its unique academic program, relatively low tuition ($29,800, compared with an average $36,993 for private-school tuition) and prudent financial-aid formulas have won praise from a swathe of college guides. The Princeton Review placed the college among the “Top 50 Best Values [for leading colleges],” and Forbes ranked it among the top 10 schools in the country for graduating students with low debt.

Before Thomas Aquinas provides any financial aid, students must first borrow a fixed amount to be put toward the full cost of their college education and expenses, with a total of $16,000 in loans by graduation.

Ave Maria University in Naples, Fla., offers a broad-based academic and extracurricular program that features more extensive laboratory and athletic facilities. Still, the university offers generous financial aid.

“Every first-time full-time student gets some form of financial aid. At graduation, average student debt was $19,639,” confirmed Deacon Forrest Wallace, a university spokesman.

Value at the Core

Part of the broader discussion about student debt includes a more complex but vital discussion about the actual value of a college education — in terms of academic substance and future earning power.

The College Board reported that the average annual income for 2008 college graduates was $55,700, at least $20,000 more than their peers with a high-school education; that degree also provided more job security.

Still, classic liberal arts programs — like those offered at most traditional Catholic colleges — are taking a beating these days, with American students and parents questioning the value of studying literature, history and philosophy in a tough job market that often demands a range of technical expertise for entry-level positions.

Yet the core curriculum is exactly what inspires parents like Erin Vander Woude to make the sacrifices to advance her children’s spiritual and intellectual formation.

“My husband and I have explained to our kids why it’s important to study metaphysics and apologetics. The subjects that really formed me as a person were the classes I had to take in the core curriculum. We ask them to pray and ask God what he wants them to do,” she said.

Recently, the Department of Education has provided some bottom-line support for this Catholic mother’s educational philosophy. According to the department’s analysis of student-loan data between 2004 and 2008, “many traditional liberal arts colleges have higher student-loan repayment rates than some business-oriented schools.”

John Zmirak, editor in chief of Choosing the Right College, an annual in-depth guide that evaluates a range of academic, social and political issues at top colleges, and endorses a classic core curriculum, identifies common features that mitigate tuition costs at traditional Catholic colleges.

“Their tuition is lower, in part, because the teachers are encouraged to spend their time in the classroom with the students, and they don’t worry about research. At many institutions, teachers spend much of their time generating research that no one will ever read,” contended Zmirak, a writer in residence at another college that offers a classic liberal arts curriculum, Thomas More College in New Hampshire.

The rise in college tuition has been blamed, in part, on the consumer-driven demands that have forced colleges to provide better dorms and more activities, even at relatively austere colleges. But Zmirak noted that administrators can only do so much to control costs; they also need to provide competitive salaries to draw strong professors.

“You can’t get the student debt much below where it is because decent professors can’t work for the minimum wage. Something has to give,” he said.

Zmirak observed that while the absence of “elaborate gyms, a football stadium or a study abroad opportunity might make a college more affordable, it could be the right fit for a student. A guide like Choosing the Right College explains how students can cobble together a core curriculum at a state university that might have a dynamic Catholic chaplaincy.

“In some families, one kid might be better off at the local state university, especially if they need to move on with career plans like medical school, or they just need to be in a large institution with a newspaper and a sports program,” he concluded. “It’s wise for parents to help their kids discern what’s right for them.”

Register senior editor Joan Frawley Desmond writes from Chevy Chase, Maryland.