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Do a quick Google search of “college value” and you’ll immediately find several lists and rankings claiming to tell you which colleges are best worth your investment.
But why do the lists differ and what does that mean to you?
There’s no set formula for figuring that out. So The Kansas City Beacon combed through a few college value rankings and talked with local universities to give you a starting point.
Pay attention to the students a college serves when considering value
Park University and Avila University — both in the Kansas City area — aren’t typically featured on many national lists of top value schools.
But they stand out in the Postsecondary Value Commission’s Equitable Value Explorer. The tool was funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and is based on publicly available federal databases that can be a few years out of date, but it provides a way to compare schools at a recent point in time.
The Explorer shows how much graduates of specific colleges and universities earn and compares that to typical earnings for high school or college graduates.
But it also graphs those numbers in relation to the percentage of students in specific groups, such as by race and ethnicity or those who receive Federal Pell Grants. Pell Grants go to students with “exceptional” financial need.
Park and Avila buck the trend when graphing schools by percentage of students who receive Pell grants and a formula estimating how much their graduates exceed high school graduates’ salaries after accounting for college costs.
More than 35% of the students at both Park and Avila receive Pell grants, while their graduates make median salaries that are similar to graduates of KC-area schools that serve closer to 25% Pell students — William Jewell College and the University of Missouri-Kansas City.
Avila and Park are also among the half-dozen four-year colleges in Kansas or Missouri serving the highest percentage of Black students, and Park serves the highest percentage of Hispanic students.
That’s important because a college’s mission — such as providing access to historically underrepresented groups — can influence its outcomes.
Some students might face disparities in K-12 education, generational wealth, health care and discrimination that can affect their education and outcomes after graduation, according to a December webinar about the Explorer tool sponsored by the Gates Foundation.
Andrew Davis, senior director of enrollment and student success at Park, said the university’s graduates tend to have high average salaries because its popular programs focus on high-demand fields like health care, finance, logistics and computer science.
He thinks Park has been overlooked on national lists because the lists’ criteria don’t always line up with Park’s mission to be as accessible to traditionally underrepresented students as possible — including forgoing standardized tests score requirements for admissions. Other factors include students who may take longer to complete a degree.
“A nontraditional audience that we serve … does take longer to complete, simply because of all the life factors. And typically completion rates are based on four or six years,” he said.
In addition to school cost and salary outcomes, many college value lists also factor in academic quality, graduation rates and debt.
Don’t assume a school with strong outcomes is out of reach
Some local colleges and universities that haven’t historically enrolled many Pell Grant recipients or students of color are working to change that trend.
Rockhurst University was among about 10 Missouri and Kansas universities included on a 2019 Forbes top 300 list for college value — ranked at 230 — and it tops a list of best-value colleges in the Kansas City metro on Niche, a site that compiles information, reviews and rankings for schools.
The Equitable Value Explorer shows Rockhurst University graduates have among the top five highest median salaries (measured 10 years after enrollment) compared to graduates of other four-year colleges in Kansas or Missouri.
But data on the Explorer, which is outdated by a few years, also shows Rockhurst has among the lowest percentages of Pell Grant recipients and that 71% of students are white.
Micaela Lenhart, associate vice president for admission at Rockhurst, said that has changed in the last few years as the Jesuit Catholic university realized it wasn’t fulfilling its values of being “here for others.”
The incoming class this school year has about 40% students of color compared to around 30% when she arrived in 2018, she said, and the university has made an effort to increase its support for Pell Grant recipients.
“We have a lot of grants and initiatives where we meet 100% of need for lower income Pell-eligible students,” she said. “You’re going to see those numbers continue to grow, because we recognize that we were not serving populations that we should be serving at the level that we really should.”
Eric Blair, vice president for enrollment and marketing at William Jewell College, said Pell students have traditionally faced a quandary.
They might have to go into debt or work long hours as a student to afford a college with a track record of high graduate salaries. Or they could attend a cheaper college with less impressive outcomes and maybe have grant money left over to help with living expenses.
William Jewell, one of the few Kansas or Missouri colleges included on an unranked 2021 Princeton Review top 200 Best Value Colleges list, reduced its tuition by about 45% this school year, from $33,500 to $18,360, to be more attractive to students from lower income families.
The change means there’s no longer as large of a difference between the sticker price and what the average student actually pays after scholarships. In the past, few students were paying full tuition because Jewell habitually gave large scholarships, but families who didn’t know about the scholarships were deterred.
“We are attracting more (Pell students) in large part because of aggressive financial aid strategy and positioning ourselves at a different price point,” Blair said.
The small liberal arts college in Liberty has also made an effort to increase diversity in other areas — the percentage of students of color and nonresident students rose from 6% in 2001 to 26.7% in 2020.
Make sure a college is a good fit for your interests and goals
Even if a college or university is affordable and has strong outcomes, you still need to make sure it has the major or program you want.
“Sometimes we see students, they may try to force a fit because, you know, some friends are going to the school,” Lenhart said.
Davis said it’s important to consider what kind of experience you want — such as whether you need a part-time online program while you work full time or want to be a full-time student participating in sports or campus activities — as well as the availability, strength and focus areas of programs you want.
Blair said that while it’s important to be pragmatic, the value of a college can’t always be measured in financial terms.
“There are so many experiential things in the college career and in a student’s life that get them attached emotionally,” he said. “You know, fit is a very real thing, understanding where they fit in well, where they feel comfortable, where they’re being met, is a big initiative for college.”
Consider how your specific financial aid opportunities and career plans might influence your college value calculation
Much of the information about colleges and universities available online concerns averages, and it may be a year or more outdated.
Blair and Lenhart said averages can be helpful to put numbers like loan amounts or tuition costs in context.
But depending on your situation, the average might not apply to you.
Your costs could be lower than average if you receive federal or state aid, receive academic scholarships, pay in-state tuition at a public university, or don’t need to pay for housing.
For example, a UMKC student who has few living expenses, is a Missouri or Kansas resident, and receives an academic scholarship and a federal need-based Pell Grant could end up paying almost nothing for college.
Meanwhile, an out-of-state student at the same school who lives on campus and doesn’t receive scholarships or grants could pay tens of thousands of dollars each year.
To get a better sense of how much you might actually pay for an education, you can look for scholarship information on the school’s website, talk to a high school counselor or reach out to the university financial aid office.
Some schools list automatic scholarships that students receive if they apply on time and meet specific academic standards.
You can also find information about federal and state aid and other scholarships in Missouri and Kansas.
After you’ve estimated your costs, you can weigh those against your prospects after you graduate from a specific school.
Blair suggested students pay most attention to graduates’ salaries and default rates on loans for specific institutions, but also research salary ranges for the industry they’re considering to see how much debt they might be able to handle.
He also said many families don’t realize they can request an adjustment if a financial aid offer doesn’t work for them.
The school might say no, but most want to make it feasible for admitted students to attend, Blair said.
“We can’t operate at a deficit, but it’s about getting a student at the institution,” he said. Colleges admit students because they “believe that that student has value to provide to the institution and would be a good fit.”