By Thomas J. Botzman, Ph.D.
President of Misericordia University
Kearston T. Healey and David A. Baker know what it costs to graduate from college – both in terms of dollars and time. They are members of our May 2013 graduating class and also the first in their families to graduate from college.
Weeks before graduating summa cum laude with her master’s degree in speech-language pathology from Misericordia University, Kearston accepted a job with Select Medical Rehabilitation Services as a speech-language pathologist. A few weeks after receiving his master’s degree in speech-language pathology magna cum laude, David began his career with Genesis Rehabilitation Services as a speech-language pathologist.
Like most collegians, they worked odd jobs, took out several student loans, and sought scholarships to finance their undergraduate and graduate degrees from the five-year academic program. They also graduated with student debt.
The Healey and Baker families, though, looked at the student loans and repayment schedule as an investment in their future. The recent graduates also happen to be in a profession where they get great satisfaction out of helping people manage or overcome their communication disorders. The median salary for a speech-language pathologist nationally is $69,100, according to a recent report in U.S. News & World Report.
“I always wanted to go to college,’’ David said, one day after receiving the first bill to begin repaying his student loans. “If I didn’t go to college, I’d be working some minimum wage job – anything to make a buck. When you break down the cost of college, it is worth the investment.’’
Another 376 undergraduate and graduate students were awarded their diplomas at our 87th annual Commencement ceremony. In 2009-10 and 2010-11, 93 percent of our graduates were employed in their field of study or enrolled in graduate school six months after graduation. I am confident we will soon be able to report the same about our two most recent graduating classes.
I am sharing Kearston’s and David’s stories with you because as the nation’s economy continues to struggle an ongoing debate continues to rage about the value of a college education. Is it worth it? What kind of job will I get after graduation? How will I pay for my degree?
“I don’t know what I would do without it (college degree),’’ Kearston recently said about the investment she made in her bachelor’s and master’s degrees at MU. “I want to go back for my Ph.D., so I can teach. I think it is something that will always pay me back. No one can take it away; you are always going to have debt somewhere.’’
They are all valid questions. While a college education is not for everyone, it still remains the surest path to earning a good living in today’s challenging economy. There are numerous reports available about the earning potential of college versus high school graduates. The National Association of College and University Business Officers (NACUBO) filed the report, “Lifetime Earnings: College Graduates Still Earn More,’’ in 2012. A person with a bachelor’s degree earns $1 million more over his or her lifetime than a person with a high school diploma. That disparity increases by another $1 million when comparing bachelor’s and doctorate degree holders, according to the NACUBO report.
“I don’t know what I would be doing without my degree,’’ added Kearston, a former commuter student who worked part time in a local grocery store while attending Misericordia. “I was making $7.25 an hour so I could put gas in my car. It wasn’t gratifying or satisfying. There is no true advancement with that kind of job.’’
Furthermore, in February 2013 the New York Times broke down the unemployment rate between college and high school graduates in our challenging economy. In January, the jobless rate for bachelor’s degree holders was 3.7 percent, while it was 8.1 percent for people with a high school diploma.
The Association of Independent Colleges & Universities of Pennsylvania (AICUP) examined the issue a little closer by focusing exclusively on the Keystone State. The 2013 report found the median earnings for all state residents with a bachelor’s degree was $48,366. Conversely, state residents with a high school diploma earned $30,754 on average.
Misericordia University’s mission is driven by its founders and sponsors, the Religious Sisters of Mercy, who have dedicated themselves to serving those who lacked access to education and health care. We continue to enroll students who have the drive and capability to excel academically, but who lack financial resources.
Nearly 35 percent of our first-year students, or nearly 200 each year, enter the University with the backing of a federal Pell grant. These students typically also receive substantial institutional and donor scholarships in support of their education. Upon graduation, these students receive better salaries, a “private good,’’ and also support their communities with increased economic output and social service, commonly known as “public goods.’’
Private institutions, like Misericordia, also are more cost effective for taxpayers. In Pennsylvania, the state underwrites 39 percent ($22,572) of the total cost for educating a student at a public institution, while private support from the state is about 11 percent ($2,752). Almost 300,000 students are enrolled in private colleges and universities in the commonwealth today, providing the base for robust future economic growth at a cost that would increase by $6 billion if all students relied on full public subsidies.
In my view, public and private support are essential parts of how we provide both the private good and public good of higher education. Working together, the public and private components of higher education create a new generation of skilled workers and community leaders. And, for the taxpayer, the support of private institutions saves on the total costs of educating students who will lead economic expansion and a broadening of the tax base.
At Misericordia, the mission remains true to this day as more than 45 percent of our undergraduate students are first-generation college students – meaning that we truly are able to open the door to better outcomes for our students and for our communities.
“I think having a certificate or degree in something gives you an advantage in finding employment,’’ David has concluded. “It opens doors and opportunities you otherwise might not have.’’
I could not have said it better myself.
Thomas J. Botzman, Ph.D., is president of Misericordia University in Dallas, Pa., the first four-year college in Luzerne County.