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Deliberating College Affordability


476469307Few topics dominate the discussion about higher education more than affordability. This is a global issue that deserves continual examination as to the relationship between the cost and outcomes of earning a degree. Central to this debate are a few publications that are capturing unique views that I’d like to share. First, I keep up with the British perspective by reading Times Higher Education, which covers research and policy articles addressing the cost benefits of college along with many other relevant topics. In keeping with the British tradition, I recently found two bluntly titled articles in the April 5, 2014 issue of The Economist: Making College Cost Less and Is College Worth It?”

The editors of “Making College Cost Less” inserted the subtitle, “Many American universities offer lousy value for money. The government can help change that.” The authors remark that the return on higher education in America varies dramatically, which is particularly important since most 18-year-olds in America attend college to get a good job. They cite the statistic that the price of college has increased four times faster than inflation since 1978 and that much of the reason for the increase has to do with improved and new physical facilities as well as “armies of administrators.” The authors continue, “In time, digital education is likely to put the squeeze on universities” and that “traditional universities will have to provide better value for money or go out of business.” They write that the U.S. government should go further by requiring universities to find out how much their graduates earn and to provide students with an estimate of the rate of return on the investment in their degree.

Somehow, this doesn’t seem very different from the proposed gainful employment regulations aimed at “for-profit” colleges and community colleges in the U.S., which I have argued should apply to all colleges and universities if they are to be implemented fairly and uniformly.   

” Is college worth it?” has the subtitle, “Too many degrees are a waste of money. The return on higher education would be much better if college were cheaper.” Much of this article portrays the differences in earnings based on degrees earned by students. Engineering graduates of UC Berkeley can expect to earn $1.1 million more after 20 years than someone who did not attend college. Arts degrees vary by institution with graduates of the most selective universities generally doing well and graduates of arts programs from lesser known institutions not faring so well.

A study by PayScale was cited and the author writes that of the 153 arts degrees in the study, graduates of 46 of those programs would have been better off investing their tuition in U.S. treasury bills over the 20 years and graduates of 18 of the programs saw returns worse than zero. The U.S. economy is partially to blame, but the high cost of college and the high debt load of graduates are also to blame according to the author. In addition, Chegg, a company that collaborated with PayScale in its study, stated that only half of graduates feel prepared for a job in their field, and many managers believe that students are not ready for the workforce after graduation. While the author writes that the PayScale report is limited by the low level of participation of graduates, he states that reports like it—and others—could go a long way toward informing students and parents about the value of certain degrees and the return on investment of expending tens of thousands of dollars on tuition.

The handwriting has been on the wall for some time now that the cost of college is an increasingly top-of-mind issue for students and parents. For working adult students, it has been an issue lasting even longer since much of the funding for their education is self-paid or borrowed. In an era with more and more information available online, institutions that provide transparency in terms of costs and potential earnings will benefit from enrollment of students and parents seeking evidence of a positive return on their tuition investment.


Wally Boston Dr. Wallace E. Boston was appointed President and Chief Executive Officer of American Public University System (APUS) and its parent company, American Public Education, Inc. (APEI) in July 2004. He joined APUS as its Executive Vice President and Chief Financial Officer in 2002. In September 2019, Dr. Boston retired as CEO of APEI and retired as APUS President in August 2020. Dr. Boston guided APUS through its successful initial accreditation with the Higher Learning Commission of the North Central Association in 2006 and ten-year reaccreditation in 2011. In November 2007, he led APEI to an initial public offering on the NASDAQ Exchange. For four years from 2009 through 2012, APEI was ranked in Forbes' Top 10 list of America's Best Small Public Companies. During his tenure as president, APUS grew to over 85,000 students, 200 degree and certificate programs, and approximately 100,000 alumni. While serving as APEI CEO and APUS President, Dr. Boston was a board member of APEI, APUS, Hondros College of Nursing, and Fidelis, Inc. Dr. Boston continues to serve as a member of the Board of Advisors of the National Institute for Learning Outcomes Assessment (NILOA) and as a member and chair of the board of New Horizons Worldwide. He has authored and co-authored papers on the topic of online post-secondary student retention, and is a frequent speaker on the impact of technology on higher education. Dr. Boston is a past Treasurer of the Board of Trustees of the McDonogh School, a private K-12 school in Baltimore. In his career prior to APEI and APUS, Dr. Boston served as either CFO, COO, or CEO of Meridian Healthcare, Manor Healthcare, Neighborcare Pharmacies, and Sun Healthcare Group. Dr. Boston is a Certified Public Accountant, Certified Management Accountant, and Chartered Global Management Accountant. He earned an A.B. degree in History from Duke University, an MBA in Marketing and Accounting from Tulane University’s Freeman School of Business Administration, and a Doctorate in Higher Education Management from the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education. In 2008, the Board of Trustees of APUS awarded him a Doctorate in Business Administration, honoris causa, and, in April 2017, also bestowed him with the title President Emeritus. In August 2020, the Board of Trustees of APUS appointed him Trustee Emeritus. In November 2020, the Board of Trustees announced that the APUS School of Business would be renamed the Dr. Wallace E Boston School of Business in recognition of Dr. Boston's service to the university. Dr. Boston lives with his family in Austin, Texas.


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