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For What It’s Worth

By Laura Onstot ’03 | Illustrations by Nazario Graziano

Christopher Whitcomb ’13 had many reasons for choosing Seattle Pacific University. A strong health care program, small classes, and a shared Christian faith were at the top of the list. “It was a natural fit,” he says.

But going to college isn’t cheap, and Whitcomb didn’t have financial assistance from his parents. Like many students applying to college, he worried about the cost of earning a degree.

Over the last decade, according to the College Board, tuition and fees have increased 2.3 percent on average each year at private, nonprofit colleges and universities like Seattle Pacific. The previous decade saw higher jumps still — and the average increases are even larger at public universities.

Chris WhitcombAs an SPU student, Chris Whitcomb ’13 served up pumpkin spice lattes and caramel macchiatos to help pay his way through school. Now he’s working in the medical field and headed to graduate school to become a physician assistant.

As the cost of a university education goes up, people are stretching to pay for it, often through loans. The Institute for College Access and Success, a nonprofit tracking high education debt, shows an average of more than $29,000 in loans per student among those who graduated in 2012.

Those big numbers are getting a lot of attention. From essays in national media to congressional hearings, everyone is asking a question that crosses a lot of prospective students’ minds when they start filling out college applications: “Is it worth it?”

A 2014 study by the Pew Research Center found that on average, people with a college degree make $17,500 per year more than their peers with a high school education — and the earnings gap is only widening. And of course, the question of value is never just about the cost of attending college; it’s preparation for your life after graduation.

For Whitcomb, the answer to the question, “Is it worth it?” is “yes.” In part, he says, that’s because SPU helped him turn an interest (in health care) into a career goal: “The four years spent [at SPU] were great.”

Sticker Price and the Net Price

Paying for college is complicated. Across the nation, few students pay a university’s published price, including at Seattle Pacific, where 95 percent of students receive some form of financial assistance, according to SPU Director of Student Financial Services Jordan Grant, with an average award per student of $31,052 for 2014–15. Rather than get stymied by sticker shock, he encourages families to look at their net price. “Net price” refers to the price students actually pay including any scholarships or grants based on family income, merit, and other factors. (Students can calculate their own “net price” at

In Whitcomb’s case, he applied for any scholarships he could find, but more importantly, he “had an amazing student representative [Student Financial Services Counselor Rondi Bard] who really helped me navigate those waters,” he says. Bard helped him apply for loans and grants. She found him a scholarship for missionary kids. Later, when another student gave up a departmental scholarship, she helped Whitcomb get the money.

Whitcomb says that the one-on-one help he received in paying for college became especially important during his sophomore year when money got tighter. He went back to Student Financial Services and together, they figured out how to keep tuition covered.

In addition to helping students identify financial aid sources, Grant says he often counsels students to look for a job, in part because research suggests that students who work part time do better in school. A study published in the Journal of College Student Retention in 2006 found that students who worked 10–19 hours per week outperformed all of their peers academically, even those who didn’t work at all.

Whitcomb started working part time at Starbucks while in school, in part for health insurance. He worked his way into a job as a shift supervisor, which isn’t often compatible with a school schedule, but he had a manager who helped make sure that academics came first. “It was kind of one part faith, one part pure hard work, and, with the [student financial services] counselor, a triangle that helped push me through.”

Calling and Cash

Like most students, Whitcomb didn’t plan to spend all of life after college as a barista. The next step was figuring out what he wanted to do after graduation — also a critical component to paying off those loans. He arrived knowing he wanted to eventually work in health care and while at SPU he started laying the groundwork for a future career as a physician assistant. Whitcomb left Seattle Pacific with a degree in applied human biology.

Associate Professor of Biology Derek Wood led Whitcomb’s University Seminar and taught his microbiology and genetics classes. Wood was instrumental in helping focus his interest on a career, says Whitcomb. “Our conversations started early when originally I wanted to be a physical therapist. This transitioned into possibly going to medical school, and ultimately we found my calling as a physician assistant.”

Major and career earnings are closely linked, according to a 2011 study by the Georgetown University Center on Education and Workforce. It found that students with a degree in petroleum engineering were making an average of $120,000 after graduation. Liberal arts and humanities majors hovered below $50,000.

Jacqui Smith-Bates, who directs SPU’s Center for Career and Calling, recommends not getting too bogged down in those numbers. “I really resist the one-to-one relationship between what you major in and what you earn. Generally speaking, people are wisest to choose a major they love,” she says. “They’re going to be more interested in school; they’re going to get better grades.”

Smith-Bates says that even students who major in less “career-focused” fields can find ways to put their majors to work. In fact, a national survey of recent arts graduates found that 80 percent of employed graduates said their first job was “closely” or “somewhat closely”” related to their field of training.

“If you love theatre, then perhaps you consider going into the business side of theatre,” she says. “There are many aspects of the arts that need passionate staff.”

Anthony Carnevale, director of the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, and author of the 2011 study, agrees. “When we look at students’ choices for majors or people’s choices for careers, they’re most heavily influenced by interest and values, and less so by earnings,” he says.

Carnevale adds that with the exception of very specific occupations, many employers are looking for people with talent and aptitude. A bachelor’s degree is seen as an indicator of the capacity to learn, he says, regardless of what field you’re in.

He also points out that college graduates don’t need to make six-figure incomes to pay off their loans in the long run. “Even if the wage advantage is only $5,000 to $10,000 [annually], you’re talking well over $225,000 [over your career], and the degree is not going to cost you $225,000.”

The most difficult thing is gaining access to the employment market in the first place. Smith-Bates says she encourages students who want to expand their career options (and have an interest) to take a couple of business or computer classes at SPU, regardless of their major. And most importantly, she says, spend some time in a professional environment, preferably through an internship. “It can be paid or unpaid; just get some practical experience.”

According to Smith-Bates, about 73 percent of SPU students do an internship or some kind of similar on-the-job training, based on a survey of 2012 graduates. In Whitcomb’s case, he spent 40 hours doing clinical work with Columbia Lutheran Home in Seattle while finishing a certified nursing assistant course after graduation.

He kept in touch with the human resources director, and shortly after finishing the course, a job opened up. “She was like, ‘We’d love to have you; you were great when you were here.’”

The Economic Policy Institute reports that unemployment among recent college graduates is around 8.5 percent. That’s higher than the overall national average which hovers around 6.6 percent. But among young adults who stop at a high school education, the unemployment number is 22.9 percent.

Smith-Bates says that about one-third of SPU students have a job lined up when they graduate. Within a year, only 2 percent of 2012 graduates were unemployed and looking for work.

Facing the Future

Despite all the optimism, students need to approach debt with their eyes wide open, Carnevale says: “There’s good reason to be afraid of it.” Debt is particularly problematic for students who don’t complete their degrees — they default on their loans at much higher rates than students who graduate.

“When you incur debt, but you’re not able to follow through and graduate, then that investment loses its impact,” says Grant.

The average debt per student at Seattle Pacific at graduation is $28,263, compared to a national average of $29,400. Student loan debt is usually an investment that pays off. But according to the U.S. Department of Education, 13.7 percent of students who graduated in 2011 have defaulted on their loans. The rate in Washington state is pushing 12 percent.

SPU’s default rate is a fraction of the national and state averages at 1.9 percent.

Grant attributes that in part to the hands-on approach his department takes to helping students pay for college and keep debt manageable. The advocates like the one who helped Whitcomb are assigned to students from the minute they apply for financial aid.

It’s a philosophy Grant takes personally. “I remember when I was sitting at my kitchen table and I opened up my award letter to my university, which was more important than my admission letter,” he says. “That’s when I knew I could go.”

That hands-on involvement follows students all the way through graduation and in some cases beyond. For instance, rather than an online-only tutorial on paying off debts, Grant says his department meets with students to go over their options before they leave. It takes extra time, he says, but has been worth the effort in getting to that low default rate.

Seattle Pacific’s Student Financial Services office also reaches out to students who are behind on payments before they hit default. In some cases, Grant says, students don’t realize payments are missed or that there are more options for repayment if they’re having trouble.

Federal loans, for instance, may have the option to tie repayment to income, reducing the monthly burden. In some cases people who are working for nonprofits can have the balance of their federal loans forgiven.

A 1.9 percent default rate still isn’t zero. “We feel good about where that number is, but we would love it to be smaller,” Grant says.

For Whitcomb, not only is he not worried about his own debt (he graduated with about $30,000 in loans), but he’s also reinvesting in further study. He’s married and his wife is working as a registered nurse at Harborview Medical Center. The income from his job as a restorative aide at Columbia Lutheran Home provides extra money to cover loan payments and gives him the experience he’ll need for the physician assistant program at University of Colorado, where he starts in May.

“If you’re a hard worker, you’ll pay that debt off,” Whitcomb says. “I’m just happy that due to the great counseling at SPU, I now know where I want to go and what I want to do with my life.”

Know the Numbers

Rising Earnings Disparity Between Young Adults With and Without a College Degree

Median annual earnings among full-time workers ages 25 to 32, in 2012 dollars

Notes: Median annual earnings are based on earning and work status during the calendar year prior to interview and limited to 25- to 32-year-olds who worked full time during the previous calendar year and reported positive earnings. “Full time” refers to those who usually worked at least 35 hours a week last year. Source: Pew Research Center tabulations of the 2013, 1995, 1986, 1979, and 1965 March Current Population Survey (CPS) Integrated Public Use Micro Samples.

Most Graduates Say College Has Paid Off

Percent who say that considering what they and their family paid for their undergraduate education, it ...

Pie chart

Note: Based on those with at least a bachelor’s degree (n=790). “Not sure/Don't know/Refused” responses shown but not labeled.

The Widening Earnings Gap of Young Adults by Educational Attainment

The difference in median annual earnings of college and high school graduates when members of each generation were ages 25 to 32.

Bar Graph

Notes: Median annual earnings are based on earning and work status during the calendar year prior to interview and limited to 25- to 32-year-olds who worked full time during the previous calendar year and reported positive earnings. “Full time” refers to those who usually worked at least 35 hours a week last year. “College graduates” are those with a bachelor’s degree or more.

Source: Pew Research Center tabulations of the 2013, 1995, 1986, 1979, and 1965 March Current Population Survey (CPS) Integrated Public Use Micro Samples.