Madison (WKOW) -- from UW Madison: Parents and high school counselors trying to persuade high schoolers that a college education pays off have a new tool at their disposal: a Web site that calculates how much better off an individual expects to be over her or his lifetime with a college degree, compared to just a high school diploma.
The University of Wisconsin-Madison Payback Calculator gives prospective and current students, along with their families and high school counselors, some answers related to the financial investment in a university education.
Specifically, the site combines information the user supplies with data from the Census Bureau research studies to give a tailor-made, personalized answer to this question: How much better off financially are you likely to be if you graduate college, as opposed to just high school? The answers vary by the user's characteristics, and account for three elements:
- the cost of a UW-Madison degree
- the approximate amount of financial aid the prospective student would receive
- expected lifetime earnings with and without a UW-Madison degree.
The economic payoff and career gains of securing a college degree are huge, but parents, their children, high school counselors and adults considering college application and enrollment may not understand the overall picture, says Robert Haveman, a professor emeritus from the Robert M. La Follette School of Public Affairs and the Department of Economics, and the site's designer.
A person with a four-year degree can have a payback of from $200,000 to more than $700,000 in her or his lifetime relative to someone with just a high school diploma, Haveman says.
The amount depends on the student's characteristics and the likely field of study that she or he chooses in college.
"This site helps parents and students understand that obtaining a college degree is a worthwhile investment that yields returns over time that are substantially greater than the costs," he says.
Students from economically disadvantaged families, first-generation college students and minorities may have less access to information about the actual cost of college attendance, Haveman adds.
That lack of information may keep them from realizing that earning a college degree is feasible and within their grasp.
Students and parents may also exaggerate the obstacles to pursuing further schooling, in part because of the difficulty in piercing the complex system of financial and other assistance designed to facilitate enrollment.
"Getting information about college's payoffs to prospective students from low-income families is especially important," says former chancellor John Wiley, who helped launch and fund the project. "We know that these families tend to apply to four-year colleges and universities at a much lower rate than students from higher-income families."
The UW-Madison programs to which the payback calculator is linked contain information about how to pay for college.
For example, under an arrangement recently worked out by the university, students can defray expenses by first attending a two-year campus or a technical college that has an agreement with the UW System to transfer credits.
The UW-Madison Office of Student Financial Services and its Parent Program provide prominent links to the payback calculator.
The Web site was developed as part of a project at the La Follette School of Public Affairs, where a small group of faculty began studying issues about college-attendance among youths, especially those from lower income families.
The research was also made possible by the Mellon Foundation and the Annie E. Casey Foundation.