As graduating high school students walk across the stage with their diplomas, they face a mountain of decisions about their future. But for most, the biggest decision has been made: Where to go to college.
High school seniors are facing an increasingly changing landscape as they pore through the stacks of marketing materials that arrived in their mailboxes - via the internet and and U.S. Postal Service.
With all of the opportunities that are available, private colleges appear to be losing the race. From budget cuts at Assumption College to the closing of Mount Ida College in Newton, small private institutions appear to have taken a hit. The answer as to why is held in the choices of high school seniors.
“Cost was a really big deciding factor for me,” said Meagan Angers, a senior at Burncoat High School in Worcester. "But I chose to go to Worcester State because they had the exact major that I wanted, which is biology and environmental science.”
When looking at colleges, there are certain factors that high school students take into account more than others. The most important, of course, is cost. Since 2008, federally owned student debt has grown from 5 percent of all household debt to nearly 30 percent, according to a 2018 Bloomberg report. This looming reality, along with rising tuition prices across the board, has enhanced the need for teens to look at what is most affordable for them.
Cathy Knowles, Worcester Public Schools' college and career liaison, said students are also taking into account what their overall end goal is and how that translates into the next step they take.
Ms. Knowles’ position was previously titled the liaison for guidance, but this year, she explained, “the district made a shift to making it college and career readiness … so it’s really preparing kids to be college ready or career ready, or both.”
A student who has always wanted to be a teacher, doctor or accountant confidently knows where they need to be once they graduate. However, not every teen can determine what they want to do after they walk across the stage and out of high school. This could lead students to opt for community colleges or jumping right into the workforce, the bottom line being what ultimately is best for that individual.
“Someone may leave high school and not go to college, but that doesn’t mean they are not going to be successful,” Ms. Knowles said.
The details appear to be bad news for private schools. When looking at costs locally, the total expense of attending Holy Cross is $67,290 if a student lives on campus, while Worcester State's in-state price tag for the 2017-2018 school year, including tuition, fees and room and board, is about $20,000, according to a college spokeswoman. While the higher price tag is due to not receiving state subsidies, the vast difference in price is enough to sway prospective students to attend a public school rather than private. This paragraph was corrected. An earlier version had incorrect costs for Worcester State.
Even so, it should be noted that private schools are more likely to provide financial aid and scholarships than public schools.
Mary Jo Murphy, a senior at Burncoat High School in Worcester, can attest to this. While applying to both private and state institutions such as the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and UMass-Boston, she chose Assumption College in Worcester, in part, because it was financially the better option. “It honestly just came down to a lot of the money … in the end, they kind of all evened out to the same, because private schools are expensive, but they gave me more scholarships and state schools are less expensive, but they gave me less money,” she said.
Ms. Murphy’s situation reflects a national trend of private colleges turning to tuition discounts as a way to maintain or increase enrollment figures, while alleviating some of the sticker shock from their tuition rates. Tuition discount rates of four-year private institutions, which include merit and financial aid awards, have risen substantially in recent years. A study bv the National Association of College and University Business Officers found that for first-time, full-time freshmen, these awards hit a record high of 49.1 percent in 2016 compared with 38.6 percent a decade earlier.
Increasing tuition discounts, however, haven’t put private schools ahead of the institutional pack in terms of staying financially afloat, or increasing enrollment. And as many small, private institutions struggle, state institutions are seeing steady or moderate enrollment figures, or are doing better than ever before. Worcester State for example, in its 140-year history, has never seen as many applications for a fall semester as they have in 2017.
For prospective first-year students who don’t know where they want to go in their career, a public college may appear as a better choice, not only for the better price but also for the number of degrees offered.
Worcester State has 61 undergraduate majors and minors that students can choose from. Meanwhile, Becker College has 29.
This is not to say that someone can’t find their niche and receive an amazing education at a small private school. This can be especially true for those students who know exactly what kind of program they are looking for.
Such is the case for Alexandra Beaudoin, another Burncoat senior, who will attend the College of the Holy Cross in the fall. “I want to go into the FBI for behavioral analysis. Salem State was one of my top choices because it has a class specifically for behavioral analysis but (Holy Cross) has a really good psychology program and lower class ratio."
But students who have no idea what they want to go into may choose a school that has more options for them.
These factors could easily be the reason why public colleges are maintaining their success, while private colleges are beginning to struggle.
This issue is one that private schools are aware of, as they make changes to their campus in order to garner more applications.
The clearest example of this locally is Assumption College, which, on top of offering new majors like data analytics, added the new Tsotsis Family Academic Center in the fall of 2017. The new building, it is hoped by school officials, adds a heightened beauty to the school, another factor that plays into a student’s decision. “The physical campus is what students are looking for today,” said Ryan Forsythe, vice president of enrollment at Worcester State.
“I honestly didn’t know until I went to all the accepted students days," said Ms. Murphy. “I could see the (Assumption College) community and the people, I liked how people kind of knew each other in the end. When I went to UMass-Amherst, it wasn’t the same.”