College Costs Soar, But Can You Afford Not To Go?

Tyra Searcy
Whitney Curtis | NBC News
Tyra Searcy

The moment she stepped onto its leafy Nashville campus, 17-year-old Tyra Searcy fell in love with Vanderbilt University. The students' drive to succeed, the activities and clubs, everything down to the smoothie bar and waffle makers in the dining hall — it all just felt right.

Except for one thing: Vanderbilt's $62,320 annual price tag.

"My sister has loans. And I see how much of a burden it puts on my mom when that bill comes in the mail," said Searcy, a high school senior from Florissant, Missouri, who got accepted to Vanderbilt, Washington University in St. Louis, and a handful of other top-rated schools.

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For the next eight months, NBC News will be following Searcy and nine other high school seniors from across the country as they navigate everything from choosing a college to meeting their roommates to studying for finals at the end of their first semester. Like millions of other students, they have gotten their acceptance letters and now are choosing the school at which they will spend the next four years.

Attaining a degree is a pricey prospect, no matter how you slice it. The class of 2014 inherited the most debt of any college graduating class, with the average graduate with student-loan debt owing $33,000, according to the Wall Street Journal.

The average annual cost for tuition, room and board at a private four-year institution is $42,419, and college sticker prices keep rising, with at least 50 American schools charging more than $60,000 a year.

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With a price tag so high and the debt burden rising, it college worth it?

Study after study confirms that it is, though there are a couple factors that improve your return on investment: graduating on time and picking certain majors, said Alan Benson, assistant professor of business at the University of Minnesota and co-author of a January report on the value of public universities in California.

"The return on education isn't quite as rosy as a lot of the prior estimates would make it out to be," Benson said.

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While college graduates in all fields tend to make more than their counterparts with just high school diplomas, it's the science, technology, engineering and math majors who have better returns — higher than those who major in humanities or performing arts, Benson said.

A study from Georgetown's Center on Education and the Workforce, published last month, echoed that, finding unemployment is highest for experienced workers with undergraduate degrees in the arts, architecture and social work.

But those who take more time to get an undergraduate degree of any major easily run the risk of being bogged down with debt. Complete College America, a nonprofit organization, published a report in December that said the majority of college students don't actually graduate on time, with rates as low as 19 percent at most public universities.

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"Finishing college is, on average, a very good thing to do for your economic future. But going to college is a different proposition." -Andrew Kelly, director of the Center on Higher Education Reform at the D.C.-based American Enterprise Institute

"An extra year costs $22,826 in tuition and fees, room and board, books and supplies, transportation and other expenses. In addition, students give up $45,327 in lost wages by graduating late. The total cost: $68,153," the report said.

Before committing to a school, look at its graduation rates, advises Andrew Kelly, director of the Center on Higher Education Reform at the D.C.-based American Enterprise Institute.

"People who have it the worst in terms of student debt are those who have paid for a chunk of their college education, but don't have the credential to help boost their wages," he said. "And some recent data suggests that the youngest cohort of workers' households that are led by somebody with some college don't earn any more than high school graduates."

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"Finishing college is, on average, a very good thing to do for your economic future. But going to college is a different proposition," he added.

Sometimes, depending on a student's situation — if they have family or work commitments — it makes sense to wait before enrolling.

"That's always an option as opposed to making a catastrophic investment," Kelly said.

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Labor Department statistics showed that the pay gap between college graduates and high school graduates is at a record high. But experts are quick to point out that that's in part because a high school diploma is less valuable than it used to be.

"The absolute return to a bachelor's degree has been either flat or declining over the past decade. However, because high school graduates have had it even worse in many ways in terms of their employment rates and wages, the payoff to a college degree on average is actually still robust and in some cases higher than it ever has been," Kelly said.

Seary, the Missouri high school senior, ended up getting a good enough financial aid offer from her dream school, Vanderbilt. What sold her on the deal was that the package was comprised of grants and scholarships — but no loans.

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She has just one last obstacle before she can commit.

"There's a $400 matriculation fee. So that's the only hard part about choosing the school, because it's so expensive to just commit. Trying to find that money so that I can sign the paperwork is probably the next challenge," she said.