Companies work to help students determine what colleges offer the most fiscally sound degrees.
Tyler Shingler hasn't chosen what school he'll attend after graduating from Olentangy Orange High School this spring, but he'll know that at least four on his radar rank high on a national list that measures the return on investment in a college education.
Shingler did not wake up one day and decide Carnegie Mellon University, University of Illinois, Rochester Institute of Technology and Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology were good fits. Those selections, instead, came over the six months he's worked with College Liftoff, a Columbus-based company that teaches students and families strategies for choosing a college. The process opened the eyes of Tyler and his parents to the business side of shopping for an education.
"Things have changed a lot since I went to school," says John Shingler, Tyler's dad. "It made us stop and think, 'Oh, my gosh we are so behind.' We were totally unprepared."
Indeed, when Shingler chose to attend Bowling Green in the 1980s, his motivating reason was, "It sounded like a pretty cool school."
The Shinglers' search is part of a college shopping experience that closely examines the relationship between the costs and salary that can be expected following graduation. In other words: Is the degree worth the paper it's written on?
Graduates are burdened with thousands of dollars in debt-the individual average is in the upper $20,000s and total student loan debt exceeds $1 trillion-and they enter a lukewarm marketplace where job opportunities are not as easy to secure as in the elder Shingler's day.
"I think it is becoming more of a mantra in some circles," says Katie Bardaro, lead economist for PayScale.com, which provides online salary data to employers and employees.
For the past three years, the Seattle-based company has been ranking the ROI of 1,486 public and private schools across the nation by analyzing annual costs to the student measured against the total income a graduate will earn in 30 years. A second measure compares the same items, but adds in the amount of financial aid a student typically receives.
Tyler Shingler's "dream" school is Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. The institution is rated at No. 28 on the PayScale.com 2013 list for best ROI. Here are the university's overall numbers:
• Average costs, which include tuition and fees, room and board: $229,000 for someone who graduates in four to six years.
• Median salary for graduates after 30 years: $1.22 million.
• Annual ROI: 6.5 percent
The latter two numbers are increased to $1.32 million and 8.5 percent when a student receives financial aid, which about 58 percent of Carnegie Mellon students do to the tune of $23,232 annually.
Digging deeper, when Tyler's preferred major of computer science is broken out, the median salary bumps up to $1.92 million and bumps the annualized ROI to nearly 8 percent.
Bardaro says advances in technology allow for such comparisons. "The analytics that are happening has made obtaining this information a lot easier."
Changing the dialogue
While the numbers are important, they'll mean more accompanied by the perspective, and this is where College Liftoff comes in.
Founder Aaron Greene started the company in 2008 with the idea that scrutinizing the value of a school takes more than looking at costs alone. He says college is such a big investment but an area many students and parents don't know how to navigate.
"How do we buy this asset?" he says. "We've never been able to associate value to any of this, and that is the problem."
His partner in the company, Gina Jacob, says today's students have much more to worry about than her generation did.
"When I attended college 25 years ago, tuition was like $3,000 a year plus room and board," she says. "So the parents that we are talking to are from that generation. We didn't buy college this way; we didn't have to worry about college this way. We don't have our own stories to draw from and so we find that parents are looking to the left, looking to the right and doing what the rest of herd is doing."
The company's aim is to change the mindset and convince people to become more proactive in shopping for college.
Like PayScale.com, College Liftoff mines data from multiple sources, but Greene and Jacob also mine the individual, which means creating a college career path that takes into consideration what the student wants, likes and can afford, how individual departments rank academically, and the expected salaries of their chosen degree. But they go further.
When a client has narrowed his choice, College Liftoff looks for financial aid, grants with the goal of lowering the student's four-year bill and theoretically increasing the ROI. Furthermore, the company educates the student about the nuances of shopping for an education, from negotiating tuition costs to knowing the language attached to school financing.
"We show them where the rubber hits the road," Jacob says.
One nuance Greene says students should look at is the size of a school's endowment fund and the number of students attending the institution. Harvard University, for example, has a lot fewer students than Ohio State and a much bigger endowment fund – $32 billion compared with $2.1 billion, respectively.
PayScale's 2013 listings show about 70 percent of each school's students receive aid. At Ohio State, the average is $7,543 per student while at Harvard it is $35,673.
"For us, it is all about equating value," Greene says. "The cost of college is based off the financial histories of the college, so if you're asking my client to buy this education, I think it's a fair question to ask them what the payoff is going to be."
Footing the bill
It's no secret college costs have been on an upward trend for several years, and paying that tab has become more difficult.
Green and Jacob say fleshing out the best value comes down to a question of retirement for the student and parents as well, which is a comment financial planners recognize.
Jason Gaylor, a financial planner at Money Concepts, says the sooner families start planning the better it is going to be when their children actually are ready for college. "You wouldn't believe the number of our clients who haven't done proper planning."
He says since the last recession and financial collapse in 2008, some clients have specifically been asking if his office does college planning. The answer is yes, they help configure a road map about how to pay for school, but they turn to experts like College Lift Off to explore the caverns of a school's climate.
His Columbus office has had a reciprocal relationship with College Liftoff for about three years, with each referring prospective clients to one and other.
"Our interests really align," he says. "What all this comes down to is financial literacy."
High schools have been encouraging students to start planning for college sooner rather than later for years. Stuart Oremus, director of college counseling at Wellington School in Columbus, says the school begins the process in freshman year.
Like College Liftoff, Wellington shows students the ropes by helping them narrow their choices and learning to communicate effectively with colleges.
"(In that first year), we call it 'Now Everything Counts,' because we want them to be aware that they are writing the record in looking for a college," she says.
The end game at Wellington, she says, is creating the "happiest possible experience where all the talents match," and Oremus doesn't think looking at the ROI value should be the sole measure.
Dolan Evanovich, OSU's vice president of strategic enrollment, says while more families are asking what kind of ROI a student can expect, the university articulates an overall value that encompasses the education and the experience. He says "students are recognizing our costs are very reasonable."
Indicative of the statement are the 36,000 applications the university-whose annual cost for tuition and fee plus room and board are about $20,000-received last year, the most ever in OSU history.
Ryan Fleming agrees that understanding the whole college application system will go a long way in framing the best financial picture for the individual.
"If you don't take the time to understand it, you could make the argument that it's better to take that $100,000 you're going to pay for an undergrad degree and invest it elsewhere," says the vice president of Gahanna-based Eagle College Planning.
A division of Eagle Financial Solutions, Fleming's college planning group helps families devise financial strategies to pay for college; identifies available grants, scholarships and loans; and fills out all the necessary paperwork. Eagle College is a member of the College Planning Network that supplies it with financial and school data to aid its clients.
Fleming says college financing is always a hot topic. His company focuses on advising families in "late-stage college planning," defined as children in high school.
"The best time to start this process is the day you find out that you're blessed with a child." Fleming says. "You only got about three years in high school to get this thing correct."
Even by connecting with College Liftoff, Jim Shinlger says he's pretty sure Tyler will leave school with some debt, but he's also confident that the counseling he's gotten from Greene and Jacob will payoff later.
"I wonder what is the value going to be for him in receiving the kind of coaching and mentoring he's getting with College Liftoff. If it isn't a six-figure return over the course of his career, I would be surprised," he says.
Craig Lovelace is a freelance writer.