The season of decision-making for many college students is upon us. Applications have been prepared and sent to universities. Discussions with family and friends have been pursued. Assessments of costs, financial aid and scholarships are being deliberated. A major factor for many students is answering the question, “Should I attend college locally, or should I go away from home or out of state?”
There are many advantages to going away for college, such as independent living, getting to know a new place, getting a new start away from the familiar, and a host of other opportunities. One of the many benefits of living in a state like Texas, with 92 colleges and universities, 38 are publicly supported, is that there are many settings to choose from. Tuition ranges from the most expensive at $51,958 at Southern Methodist University, to the least costly, with several public institutions near or less than $3,000. Because of differentials in in-state and out-of-state tuition, in-state public colleges and universities offer an immediate advantage in terms of lower costs and debt.
The realities of cost savings are even more pronounced if a student decides to stay within commuting distance for college. The advantages regarding costs can be remarkable if the student can stay at home with parents or guardians. At West Texas A&M University, tuition and fees account for roughly half of the total cost of college attendance and room and board, the balance of the equation. In a study at Walsh College in Michigan, the student loan default rates are 2.3% for commuters, while in Michigan, they reached 11.5% and nationally, 10%. And, like the freedom enjoyed when a student leaves home to study, the freedom of reduced or no debt for education can be significantly important in life choices regarding careers, places to live and quality of life. “Debt is like any other trap, easy enough to get into, but hard enough to get out of,” according to Henry Wheeler Shaw. Notably, the student who lives at home while attending college is not a disadvantaged minority. About half of the nation’s college students live at home. As costs of college attendance increase, those numbers will likely increase as more students choose the cost-effectiveness of living at home.
Things like family celebrations, regular home meals, healthcare, stability, religious traditions and a host of other important life events can be continued from youth into adulthood when own life and college attendance are mingled.
At WT, as a member of The Texas A&M University System, some very special opportunities are provided that can integrate a close-to-home undergraduate experience with a first-rate graduate education opportunity. WT has established “pipeline programs” with every college at Texas A&M University. This allows a “best of both worlds approach” for students interested in both undergraduate and graduate study. This reality increases over time, especially in professions requiring post-baccalaureate engagement. These pipeline programs prepare an integrated opportunity for students to stay close to our campus in the Texas Panhandle for excellent undergraduate work. Should they choose a profession or discipline for graduate study not represented on WT’s campus, there is a furrow in the soil that leads to Texas A&M University. The A&M System may represent the very best of an integrated university system that provides local students the opportunity to move from a regional campus, there are 10 in the Texas A&M System, into a world-leading Association of American Universities institution, one of the very best in the nation, in a seamless way.
Job and internship opportunities may be nestled into local relationships through family, friends and associations developed while in high school. As college costs increase, at a rate greater than family incomes, and federal aid such as Pell Grants cover increasingly smaller portions of total college costs, the average unmet financial needs for study are up 150% in the last 30 years. These students increasingly need to work to help pay the costs of college attendance. Facilitating good jobs while studying may be easier for students close to home who have work relationships already in place or developing. The impact of working 15 to 20 hours per week of study is positive, not negative, as GPAs are higher for students who have jobs. With care, a student job that helps reduce indebtedness and pays a portion of college costs leads to longer-term intern and employment activities locally.
Universities that intend to serve locally effectively must be diligent in recognizing the needs of local students. I have seen many cases where campus life, clubs and student organizations and active engagement in a life-changing educational experience is possible while student lives at home. It can be a rewarding experience that provides opportunities not available when studying afar.
While costs of attendance and indebtedness are significant factors in choosing to study locally, they are not the only important consideration to make. The culture and life experience of a region like the Texas Panhandle can be a vibrant part of the college experience and benefit both the student and the community.
Walter V. Wendler is President of West Texas A&M University. His weekly columns, with hyperlinks, are available at https://walterwendler.com/.