Six Common Myths About Higher Education

Higher education issues are a matter of public debate at unprecedented levels. Practically every day lately you can pick up a newspaper and find an article on college affordability, or graduation rates or campus sexual assault, or the right to carry firearms on campus. While such public debate is healthy, it sometimes generates myths about higher education that appear self-evident through repetition but are simply not true. Here are six such myths.

Myth 1: Many Students Graduate with more than $100,000 in Debt. The public discourse about college affordability vastly inflates the levels of debt generally incurred by college graduates. The overwhelming majority of students graduate with manageable loan levels. For example, in 2012, 40% of borrowers (undergraduate and graduate students across all sectors of higher education) owed less than $10,000; 70% owed less than $25,000; and 88% owed less than $50,000. Only 4% of borrowers accumulated student debt of $100,000 or more.*

And importantly, the average debt per borrower among all bachelor degree recipients at private colleges in 2011-12 was $29,900, compared to $25,000 at public universities -- an excellent argument for attending a quality private institution.

Myth 2: A College Degree is No Longer a Wise Investment. The truth is that a college degree is one of the best investments anyone could make. The lifetime earnings of a person with a college degree is about a million dollars more than that of a person with only a high school degree. In 2012, the median annual earnings of a person with a bachelor's degree was $55,432; with an associate's degree, $40,820; with a high school diploma, $33,904; and without a high school diploma, $24,492.

By 2020, two thirds of U.S. jobs will require some form of postsecondary education. There will be an estimated 55 million job openings through 2020, and 65% of them will require some two- or four-year college degree.

Myth 3: Private Colleges are not Affordable. Many people throughout the nation believe that private colleges are not affordable, but the truth is that thanks to generous institutional student aid policies, private colleges remain affordable to students from all backgrounds. For example, while the average published tuition and fees at private four-year colleges in 2013-14 was $30,090, students on average paid less than half that amount -- about $12,460. That year, full-time undergraduates at private four-year colleges received on average an estimated $17,630 in grant aid from all sources and tax benefits. In fact, the average inflation-adjusted net tuition and fees at private colleges dropped 8% from 2008-09 to 2013-14.

What's more, 78% of students who received a bachelor's degree from a four-year private college were able to complete it in four years, compared to 60% of graduates at public institutions, thereby avoiding extra years of tuition and beginning their careers earlier.

Myth 4: Private Colleges Enroll Mainly Wealthy, Traditional Students and Therefore Lack Diversity. The truth is that student bodies at private colleges are just as racially, ethnically, and economically diverse as their peers at public colleges. The percentage of full-time, minority undergraduates at four-year private colleges is equal to that at four-year public institutions -- about 26 percent -- and private and public colleges enroll similar percentages of full-time, undergraduates from low-, middle-, and upper-income families.

Myth 5: Fewer Students are Enrolling in Private Colleges. The fact is that enrollment at private colleges continues to grow. In 2011 and 2012, enrollment in private colleges increased, while the total postsecondary enrollment in the U.S. declined. Over the past ten years, enrollment at private colleges has grown 25%.

Myth 6: Private Colleges have Billion-Dollar Endowments. The implication of this often-repeated myth is that private colleges are fat and greedy. The fact is that most private colleges have modest endowments. The median endowment of all independent institutions in 2011-12 was only $22.3 million, down from $24 million in the prior year. During 2013, only 47 of the nation's 1,600 private colleges and universities -- that is, three percent -- had endowments of $1 billion or more. And it is important to note that contributors routinely earmark their gifts for special purposes, such as specific scholarships, academic programs, or faculty support. These gifts are legally restricted from being used for other purposes.

These are only six of a number of common myths about higher education that you will commonly hear in the public discourse.

*Note: The data in this column were provided by the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities. My thanks to NAICU president, David Warren.