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Is college worth it? Most Missouri and Illinois students can pay off loans within a decade

Cecilia Castelli

Is college worth it?

The age-old question has entered the minds of many college students and graduates at least once. A new report from the Strada Education Foundation says the answer is yes for many in Missouri and Illinois despite the ongoing student loan debt crisis.

A majority of people in both states are able to pay back their student loans within 10 years, and secure high wage, high demand jobs. St. Louis Public Radio’s Marissanne Lewis-Thompson spoke with Stephen Moret, the president and CEO of the Strada Education Foundation about the State Opportunity Index report and what the findings mean for those who choose to pursue higher education.

This interview was edited for clarity and length.

Marissanne Lewis-Thompson: What was the genesis behind the State Opportunity Index report?

Stephen Moret: We’ve long talked about getting a college education as a pathway to good jobs and economic mobility. But the focus has almost always been on access and completion. While those are very important, it turns out that many people are getting access and completing [degrees] that actually are not having particularly good economic outcomes. So the entire focus of the State Opportunity Index was really identifying the things that state policymakers and institution leaders need to do to enable more people to secure economic mobility through their education after high school.

Lewis-Thompson: Based on the findings of this report, what kind of picture does it paint regarding the correlation between pursuing higher education, employment, and a meaningful financial future?

Moret: Getting a college degree is probably the single best pathway to economic opportunity in America today or certainly the most reliable one. But even though most people have good outcomes, there’s a sizable minority of people who go and complete, but then actually struggle to get good jobs and or to get a job that’s strong enough to enable them to pay back any loans that they might have.

Lewis-Thompson: Each state receives a positive return on investment score or ROI. It’s basically a rough percentage of how many college graduates can pay back their student loans in ten years. In Missouri that score is 70% and in Illinois it’s 76%. What do these overall scores say about each state's return on investment?

Moret: Illinois is doing somewhat better than the U.S. overall in terms of providing a positive ROI for its college graduates. Missouri is doing a little bit worse than the U.S. overall. Probably the biggest contributor to that is in Illinois of course the dominance of the Chicago metro area labor market, which really represents the strong majority of the state’s population and its economy gives it a meaningful edge in that ROI score over Missouri where certainly St. Louis and Kansas City are both two strong labor markets as well, but not quite as strong as Chicago.

Lewis-Thompson: This report is broken down into five priority areas including affordability and employer alignment. For both Illinois and Missouri it’s far more affordable to pursue an associate degree than a bachelor’s. However, the return on investment is much higher for a bachelor's degree than an associate. Is this a lose lose scenario?

Moret: We looked at affordability specifically. How much work would someone have to put in while they’re going to school to be able to pay the net cost of completing a public college degree? Either a Bachelor’s degree or an Associate degree. In both Missouri and Illinois, those are two of the more expensive states in the country to get a degree from a public institution. In each state, a student would have to work full-time during the summer and more than 30 hours a week during the school year to be able to secure a degree on average in those two states.

Lewis-Thompson: Let’s pivot to employer alignment. Where is Missouri seeing success and failure? And I extend that question to Illinois as well. Which career paths are more fruitful?

Moret: We looked at employer alignment by basically taking some of the most common high demand, high wage jobs in the country across all 50 states, and looking at how well each state is really meeting that demand and ensuring there’s access to programs that lead to high wage and high demand jobs. When you look at Illinois and Missouri, while they have some really excellent higher education institutions, in many cases they’re not producing enough graduates or at least not enabling enough graduates to go through those programs to meet those high demand job needs. So in both cases for example, there are particular shortages for health care technicians, finance and accounting support roles, and data analytics. You probably hear some of those anecdotally from employers around the state. On a more positive note, both states are doing relatively well in meeting the demand for high wage jobs in manufacturing technicians, and software development and engineering.

Lewis-Thompson: While this report gives a sense of where both states are lacking and succeeding to employers and those considering higher education, there is something that can’t be ignored. Student loan debt is still a massive problem. Based on these findings, is college still worth it?

Moret: College still provides the best pathway to opportunity for most people with the inclination and the preparedness to complete a quality college program. I think what this report is pointing out is that there is more to success than just completing the credential. There are steps the individual, the institution leaders, that policymakers need to take to help maximize the likelihood of success for people that pursue a college degree.

Copyright 2024 St. Louis Public Radio. To see more, visit St. Louis Public Radio.

Marissanne Lewis-Thompson joined the KRCU team in November 2015 as a feature reporter. She was born and raised in Kansas City, Missouri where she grew up watching a lot documentaries on PBS, which inspired her to tell stories. In May 2015, she graduated from the University of Missouri with a Bachelor of Journalism degree in Convergence Journalism. Marissanne comes to KRCU from KBIA, where she worked as a reporter, producer and supervising editor while covering stories on arts and culture, education and diversity.
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