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A college education is the most complicated purchase most people will ever make – and one of the most expensive.

With thousands of choices and a confusing array of costs, its price doesn’t always correspond to its value, and that value can be hard to measure, particularly in tough economic times.

Will the college degree be a ticket to a healthy paycheck and good career, or a prelude to years of debt and difficult choices? Either way, almost every young person looking at today’s job market wants to have one.

When President Obama addresses the crowd at the University at Buffalo’s Alumni Arena later this morning, he almost certainly will acknowledge the role of the nation’s colleges in building and maintaining a vibrant middle class before he goes after the 800-pound gorilla in the classroom – the exponential rise in the cost of higher education in the last three decades. It has increased 250 percent while incomes rose 16 percent, and in the process has pushed the amount of student loan debt in America to nearly $1 trillion.

Cecilia Munoz, director of the White House Domestic Policy Council, said Wednesday that Obama will be “unveiling an ambitious new policy agenda” on higher education, with both legislative proposals and administrative actions aimed at controlling college costs, which he has labeled “unsustainable.”

But if he really wants to make a difference, says one expert on higher education’s connection to jobs and debt, Obama has to offer his audience more than cheap loans and more debt.

“The real question for the president is: Is he going to do more ‘spending and lending,’ or are we actually going to understand the value of earning and learning?” said Anthony P. Carnavale, director and research professor at the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce.

“Everybody knows, politically, that jobs are first, then health care, and then, always third or fourth, higher education,” Carnavale said.

“The tough part is the government’s pulling out (financially) on the federal level and in the states, and the schools are in a bind.”

“We need to be helping people figure out how to get more value for their money. There are reasons for going to school other than getting a job,” he said, “but we do know that what (courses) you take determines what job you get and what you make.”

Change by degrees

That’s why, he said, in the last 30 years getting a postsecondary education has become vital to getting a good job.

But while enrollment in public colleges and universities increased from 7.1 million to 11.5 million full-time students in the past 25 years, state and local appropriations for higher education dropped to record lows, according to a report by State Higher Education Executive Officers.

And schools make up for those cuts in large part by hiking tuition.

“The increase in the cost of higher education over the past two or three decades is unconscionable. It’s two or three times the rate of inflation,” said John LaFalce, a former Democratic congressman from Western New York who has maintained a keen interest in higher education.

“It’s not enough for the president to say we have to be concerned about student debt and student costs.”

LaFalce is skeptical about how recent changes in federal student loan policy and interest rates will help graduates, who are leaving school with more than $26,000 in debt, on average, with some carrying much more.

“All these colleges have built new dormitories and encourage students to live away from home, which adds to their costs. And the financial packages they offer generally are loans, not grants – it’s a debt burden that they are going to impose on you,” LaFalce said.

“The students get inadequate counseling about what this is all going to cost, and we have too many institutions that are ‘not-for-profit’ operating like profit-making businesses.”

LaFalce wants the government to hold colleges and universities accountable.

“The president has to come up with something that ties federal aid to the reduction, or least control, of costs by colleges and universities,” he said.

Wednesday, Munoz noted that the Higher Education Act, which guides federal policy regarding colleges and universities, is due for reauthorization soon and could provide a vehicle for the president’s plan.

“We know there is bipartisan support for the kind of proposals that he’s putting forward, so we’re hopeful that the legislative pieces will have strong bipartisan support,” she said.

“But there are also administrative pieces that the administration can move forward, and he is looking forward to outlining them in Buffalo.”

Carnavale suggests that the president also consider endorsing proposed legislation called “The Student Right to Know Before You Go Act.” Introduced last year by Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., and with bipartisan support in the Senate and House, the bill would require colleges to tell prospective students what its graduates earn, on average; on-time graduation rates; and the average total cost for its students, with and without financial aid; and how much debt graduates carry with them.

This ties into an address Obama gave at the University of Michigan last year, in which he called for more clarity about college costs.

“He talked, for example, about transparency, about how the decisions that we make as consumers of a college education should be at least as well-informed as the decisions you and I would make if we were buying a refrigerator,” Munoz said.

Education that pays

Meanwhile, Carnavale said, some numbers for graduates are easier to find out than others.

“We can get a pretty solid lock on how they do on the job-side,” he said.

Earlier this year, his office released the graduate unemployment rates for students from a number of majors. Those in nursing and elementary education had the lowest unemployment rates (4.8 and 5 percent, respectively), due to expanding needs in health care and a large number of teacher retirements.

Those in recreation also were finding jobs in their field, although they are not particularly high-paying positions, Carnavale said.

The Georgetown office found that the highest unemployment rates were for those with degrees in architecture at 12.8 percent and information systems at 14.7 percent, along with anthropology at 12.6 percent and political science at 11.1 percent.

Interestingly, theater majors were finding jobs, albeit low-paying, while film and photography graduates were having a harder time, Carnavale said.

With tuition, fees and room and board topping $17,000 annually on average at public colleges and universities, according to the nonprofit College Board, students and parents have reached a breaking point, said Richard K. Vedder, director of the Center for College Affordability and Productivity in Washington, D.C.

In some cases, the schools are responding, which explains the president’s choice of UB as the venue for his speech.

“Buffalo is a vibrant university community,” Munoz said.

“It is a good place to illustrate how important this is to middle-class families. The SUNY system has been a leader in making sure that college is affordable and has invested in innovations to help support both the quality and the reduced costs of an education.”

One of those innovations is UB’s “Finish in 4” program, which started this year. A number of schools, including Medaille College, started such guarantee programs after decades of “semester creep,” in which students were unable to get into required classes and finish degree requirements in the traditional four years, adding to their college costs.

“We had to really improve the availability of high-demand courses and provide more advisement to the students,” said A. Scott Weber, senior vice provost for academic affairs at UB, who helped develop Finish in 4.

He said more than 50 percent of the school’s freshmen signed up for the program, which already has been shown to have a high retention rate.

“And it’s very attractive to parents,” he said.

UB has added faculty, expanded some class sizes and added more lab opportunities, which he said had been a “pinch-point” preventing on-time graduation.

The program is one of several reasons UB was among six public research universities honored this spring by the New America Foundation for “embracing key strategies that make them models for national reform.”

The report cites UB’s efforts to expand enrollment and improve graduation rates while keeping costs manageable.

UB also landed at No. 33 on Kiplinger’s latest Personal Finance “Best Values” list of U.S. public colleges. Geneseo State College came in at No. 9, and Binghamton University, where the president will speak Friday, was No. 12.

email: mmiller@buffnews.com and jzremski@buffnews.com