R.O.I. or R.I.P.: Rouse Discusses Future of Higher Education at She Roars Conference

Oct 9, 2018
B. Rose Kelly
Woodrow Wilson School

A partisan divide exists when it comes to the value of higher education, a gap that’s widened between 2010 and 2017. But why has higher education become such a controversial hot-button issue?

Cecilia Rouse, dean of the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, addressed the future of higher education to a roomful of “She Roars” participants in a talk titled “R.O.I. or R.I.P.: The Future of Higher Education” Oct. 5 in McCosh Hall.

Using data to illustrate her arguments, Rouse covered four big themes in higher education: cost, paying for college, individual economic benefits (and risks), and societal economic benefits.

Today, two big issues concern Democrats and Republicans equally: tuition costs and whether students are getting the necessary skills for the workplace. Both concerns are valid, Rouse said, but there are nuances to each.  

Over the past 17 years, published tuition — or the “sticker price” — has increased about 47 percent in real dollars for not-for-profit, four-year colleges, Rouse said while showing a graph with rising lines. That is a significant increase, she said, but it’s still smaller than that for public four-year institutions, which saw an increase of 64 percent. This is largely explained by decreased support from states.

“Some of the biggest challenges truly face the public schools, which is where most students go,” Rouse said. “As state support has decreased, families are now bearing a greater part of the burden. This burden is especially tough because of stagnating household income.”

Yet, like buying a car, there is the sticker price of college and the actual price one pays. While the media would lead one to believe everyone has $85,000 of debt on average, that’s simply not true, Rouse said.

In the nearly 30 years between 1991 and 2018, published tuition and fees at not-for-profit four-year institutions just about doubled, whereas the growth in what students actually paid was only about 20 percent. There has actually been a decrease in costs at two-year public community colleges thanks to the increase in the maximum Pell Grant and increased tax credits.

When it comes to paying for college, the majority of students are relying on family income, student loans and financial aid. Today, only 5.7 percent of borrowers have taken out loans over $50,000. The largest loans are being taken out for first professional degrees, such as medical or law school, with 40 percent of graduate school students borrowing more than $50,000.

Clearly, there are financial risks to attending college, but the individual and societal benefits outweigh those, according to Rouse. In her slides, she showed how, on average, the typical college graduate will earn $900,000 more than the typical high school graduate over their working life. College graduates are more likely to vote, be involved civically and pay higher taxes, all of which are benefits to society as a whole.

So, overall, is higher education worth it? As an economist, Rouse says yes.

“Investments require upfront costs,” Rouse said. “You buy a home as an investment, optimistic you can sell it later. You invest in stocks and have to put money down, hoping for a return later. It’s the same with education. As an economist, I think of education as an investment. Of course, people say: ‘What about risks? Just because you go to college doesn’t mean you come out with a good job or employment in your field.’ But in my work, I find the income gap between those with only a high school degree compared to those with a degree has remained the same over time. So yes, it’s risky, but consider the alternative.”

"She Roars: Celebrating Women at Princeton" was held Oct. 4-6 at Princeton University for Princeton alumnae. More than 3,300 people participated in presentations by alumni, faculty, staff and students. The full schedule included more than 90 events and 200 speakers, including Rouse. The conference follows up on the "She Roars" conference in 2011.