Officials, students: College still worth the cost

Despite any debts she might incur, University of Texas Permian Basin freshman Alex Ramos is determined to get her degree and go on to medical school to become a surgeon.
A mixture of parental nudging and her own desire made higher education all but certain.
“… I think my parents wanted me to go to college and then I also had that want to go to college for my education, so I could become a surgeon and so I could help people. That’s always been … my dream to help people and someday go on a mission trip and help people who can’t afford these surgeries and stuff like that,” Ramos said.
“… My parents really have pushed me to go to college. They’ve motivated me to keep my grades up so I could get into a good college and then just the whole aspect of me wanting to become a surgeon just kind of motivated me even more,” she added.
Currently working at Our Family Urgent Care in Midland, Ramos is studying biology at UTPB and getting real-world experience at the clinic.
"It’s been good. The change from high school to college is a little different. I’m not going to lie, but overall I feel like my university has done really well … with helping freshmen get into the swing of college and managing their classes and managing all aspects of their time,” Ramos said.
In her personal opinion, she said, going to college should be mandatory.
“… It gives you a jump on your life once you get out. You study what you love to do, what you want to do and yeah you’ve got to pay for it, but I feel like the more studies you do … the more you’re going to get in your future …,” Ramos said.
She had a pleasant surprise taking courses outside of science.
“I recently took a Shakespeare class and that was probably one of my favorite classes. I never really liked Shakespeare, but it was an English … requirement and I enjoyed it a lot. And also math; I love math. Math is like one of my best subjects ever, so I love my math class. I’m a nerd. I like anything difficult,” Ramos said.
The Midland High School graduate said if people are on the fence about college, attend for a year maybe at a community college and see how they feel.
“I would say get your associate, even if you don’t know what you want to do. Get your associate (degree) in business because you can do anything with business. Then maybe at that point you’ve figured out what you want to do and you’ve already invested your time and your money into something important …,” Ramos said.
Avery Vega, a graduate of George H.W. Bush New Tech Odessa, is now attending classes in the McCombs School of Business at the University of Texas at Austin virtually while working at the Great Texas Oil Change in Odessa. He’s going for a degree in supply chain management.
Vega said two different things went into the decision to stay home and start his freshman year online.
“The first was that I felt the school did not have adequate preparations for accommodations for COVID. It was still two people per room. If somebody got COVID, they’d be moved somewhere else. There was not any required face mask, so in general in Austin, especially on the campus (it) was like a breeding ground for COVID,” Vega said.
“The second reason was a simple cost thing. I could go to college and spend $12,000 on room and board to get COVID, or I could save $12,000 for the next semester and work or do something similar,” he added.
He said he still feels college is worth it, although a lot of people might not think so.
“I’m just looking at it from the expected earnings that you get after attending college compared to the price that you spend on college. It’s just like it’s a no-brainer financial decision if you’re able to do that and COVID has not changed that. It’s certainly made aspects of school more difficult, but it’s also made other aspects … like working … a lot easier,” Vega added.
He said it’s wonderful to be able to live at home and save money so he can put it toward more college and not have as much debt.
Having to work while attending college and being involved in club activities would probably be too much for a lot of people, himself included, without letting something slip, Vega said.
He said his college degree will be worth it when it’s done, especially because it’s in business.
“Some degrees offer wonderful returns and some degrees don’t,” he said.
If you go to film school, for example, it’s probably not as good a decision as going to medical or business school or going into any science, technology, engineering or math field, he said. He added your expected earnings will likely be many times what they would be if you had not earned a college degree.
If someone were on the fence about going to college, Vega said his advice would depend on what field they want to pursue and what their situation was.
“If you want to go to college to be an automotive engineer, I would say it’s not worth it. There’s lots of other opportunities for you, especially in Odessa, that you can find that will pay off better. If you want to go to medical school, you kind of have to (go to college); you don’t have a choice. It’s medical school for a reason,” Vega said.
“If you want to just go and have the college experience, it’s probably not worth it from a financial perspective. As with all things, you have to make sure that you go out there and you do that research and you find the right fit for whatever career you want to go into. In some scenarios, college isn’t worth it. But in a lot of those scenarios, college is absolutely worth it,” he added.
He agrees with Ramos that community college is a “wonderful way to dip your toes in the water to figure out if learning and going down this route is going to be the right option for you.”
“It’s relatively cheap. There’s pretty much a community college in every single town you live in, so your cost of living (isn’t) going to be that much harder. The content is not as time consuming as a bachelor’s or master’s degree would be, so it’s a lot easier to work and go to school so you can pay your way through school, which is something that’s a lot harder” when you’re going for a bachelor’s degree.
“And again, the payout from getting an associate degree is definitely there, so if you want to go ahead and head that way, getting an associate degree from your community college is a great idea, especially just figuring out what you want to do … I know a lot of people, including myself, wasn’t sure what they wanted to do so finding your way in community college when the stakes are a lot lower is a wonderful option,” Vega said.
UTPB Vice President of Enrollment Management PJ Woolston said college can be free for a lot of students. Generally speaking from the viewpoint of universities, they are concerned about higher education access for students, he said.
“We understand the value of going to college and getting a degree, which even when you look at the cost, a lot of times the college part can be free to a lot of people. It’s not … that nobody pays for it. It’s that the student doesn’t have to pay for it. Someone pays, but the costs are covered by organizations like the federal government and the state government. There’s so much funding and it goes so much further at a public school than it does at a private school that the student with need that’s coming from a family that doesn’t make a ton of money a lot of times doesn’t have to pay anything because those costs are covered by somebody else,” Woolston said.
There are ways of shortening college time such as dual credit where students can earn up to two years of college credit before they go to a four-year university.
They may also be able to earn an associate degree while still in high school.
Woolston said students also can take Advanced Placement classes and Odessa High School has an International Baccalaureate program.
“There’s lots of ways to get a head start while you’re in high school, and especially if students are proactive, if they’re thinking in advance I want to go to this school, or I know I want to major in this, they can make sure that the classes that they’re taking early on are going to be directly applicable …” Woolston said.
All of that reduces time to degree. Planning ahead, he said, is occurring more than it has previously.
He added that everyone is aware of how expensive college is and the colleges have been proactive about setting up dual credit programs.
“Now it’s so standard and so many people do it that it’s much more straight forward,” Woolston said.
He said ways to cut the cost of living is by not living on campus, doing your laundry at home and getting food from home.
High schools also stress filling out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA.
“It’s a way to sort of level the playing field, to make sure that organizations like the federal government and the state government can know how to cover the costs of certain people based on their income. That’s how we get to the need-based part because everyone talks about scholarships, and of course … UT Permian Basin and Odessa College and Midland College, they’re going to be thinking about scholarships for students, too. We’re trying to package that with the need-based aid to minimize the direct cost to the student,” Woolston said.
UTPB also has scholarships for students whose families make less than $60,000 where tuition costs are covered.
Odessa College also offers a variety of scholarships and discounts.
On average, Woolston said, someone who has a bachelor’s degree is making more than double an annual salary that a person with a high school diploma is.
“The trade-off is someone with a high school diploma is working sooner. If they’re not going to college, they can work full time, they can make more money than someone who is working part time and going to college. But within a couple of years of graduating, they quickly pass that,” Woolston said.
Studies show that students who have a college degree make $1 million more — at least — over their lifetime than students with just a high school degree, Woolston said.
“That’s just like the first level of why a college degree pays off. We also know that the unemployment rate for people with a bachelor’s degree is about a quarter or a third what it is for people without a bachelor’s degree …,” Woolston said.
There are also secondary benefits, he said, such as people with a bachelor’s degree are more likely to have health insurance; they’re more likely to have a retirement account; “they’re much more likely to be civically engaged and to vote.”“They’re much more likely to be culturally engaged and just have a greater appreciation for the arts,” Woolston said. “All that stuff just comes from spending time with this four-year period — four- to- six-year period. A lot of students are going part time and that can work, too, but it’s this focused time where they’re surrounded by peers; they’re being challenged by just really amazing faculty members. It’s a really formative time in life.”
In his state of higher education address, Commissioner of Higher Education Harrison Keller addressed the value of college.
"…After the Great Recession, nearly all new jobs created in the United States and 85 percent of the new jobs created in Texas required at least some education beyond high school. And today, early steps toward economic recovery already appear to be leaving those without postsecondary credentials behind. The current recession is also the most inequitable our nation has seen since unemployment data has been tracked. Women, Black and Hispanic Texans, low-income Texans, and Texans in rural communities have disproportionately lost jobs and are seeing slower return to employment. That is why we have launched an initiative to assess and update the 60x30TX plan to be responsive to what Texas needs now from higher education,” Keller stated.
According to information from the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board, those needs include:
>> Expanding the plan’s focus to include adults and nontraditional students.
>> Identifying and prioritizing the kinds of high-value credentials that are especially important for current and future workforce needs.
>> Leveraging higher education’s research and development capabilities.
>> And advancing access and outcomes equitably so all Texans can have opportunities to participate in and contribute to the great benefits of the state.
Woolston from UTPB said college also offers a chance for choice. Students can schedule the days and times they want to take classes. Pre-COVID, he noted that students who lived on campus are more successful academically and have better relationships with people around them.
He added that UTPB has a healthy transfer student population.
Asked if more students should be pointed to majors like engineering or nursing, Woolston said not necessarily. An English major can have many choices because they can apply their skills to many disciplines.
“… When we hear people say we need more people to go into trade education, I don’t know that it’s necessarily that we need more students in trade education but I do wish that we could see more students think more openly about what they want to do,” Woolston said.
He added that in other parts of the world, students have to decide sometimes as young as junior high what they want to do the rest of their lives.
“Who knows when they’re that young, let alone when they’re 16 or 17 what they want to do with the rest of their life. Some of them do and the ones who feel a calling to heal people and to help people should go into nursing. The ones who feel a calling to crunch numbers and build stuff should go into engineering,” Woolston said. “We have people who need to go into teaching because they just know they’re teachers. Then we have a whole host of people … who just don’t know yet, and that’s OK, too. They know that college is the right choice for them because of all the opportunities it’s going to provide. We can help them figure it out from there.”
According to the College Board website, the average cost of tuition for a two-year public college was $3,440 for in-district students.
A public four-year college for in-state students was $9,410.
A public four-year college for out-of-state students was $23,890. And a private four-year college was $32,410. The costs do not include room and board.
Woolston said part of the reason college costs have gone up is the support provided to students with tutoring, advisors and career centers.
“… We’ve started these offices so students can come into college and not just pick a major and here’s the list of classes you need to take … for the next four years. It can be … we’re with you every step of the way. What are you struggling with? Is it a class? Is it a major choice? Is it a career choice? Is it finding an internship? We can help you now with all of that stuff. We’re just trying to help students understand the scope of what we have available,” Woolston said.
He added that UTPB is preparing to launch a recruiting initiative focused on the Permian Basin.
“… We just want more students to go to college because their future is going to be brighter if they do,” Woolston said.
While adults and students alike head to the oilfield when it’s booming, if you go straight to work, Woolston said, you don’t develop those transferrable skills, versatility or resiliency.
“That’s stuff we can teach you,” he said.
He added that students also learn networking and social skills.
“There’s that support piece. We’ve got an advisor, faculty mentors; we’ve got college tutors that help you with your individual classes. The support network is so much stronger,” Woolston said.