The Value of a College Degree?

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I did what I knew to do…what made sense at the time,” says Chanda Maldonado, Chattanooga resident and mother to two, an adult son and Layah, age 9. The co-owner of Chambers Welding & Fabrication, an industrial welding company specializing in advanced and custom contract welding projects has agreed to meet with me on the topic of the cost of a college education, its return and its relevance to career and economic success. I met Maldonado through a women’s networking event and had heard about her departure from salaried “white-collar” executive management to pursue her bold, entrepreneurial endeavor in a traditionally male-dominated, labor-intensive field. In my many years of hearing people’s stories I knew she surely had a good one and one that could be relevant to the college decisions our young people face today. Soon after we grab our coffees and exchange our “hellos,” we begin to dig in, and her countenance turns serious.

Speaking matter-of-factly, Maldonado recalls her mother’s words during her senior year in high school, “When you become an adult in this family, you move out; you support yourself,” her mother told her. It may sound harsh to some of us, but for Maldonado, those words instilled the drive she would need for a lifetime.

And so move out, she did. The idea of going straight to college, without being able to support yourself, was unheard of in her family. Maldonado took the logical, next-best step. She enrolled in the United States Army. She chose nursing as her field, a common and logical choice for women at the time, obtained her Associate’s Degree and went to work as a flight nurse while enrolled.

Katina Goad, 2015 graduate of Lee University. Photographed by Clay Miller.

Maldonado counts her Army experience as invaluable; yet upon completion of her four years, she entered the workforce with little idea of what she “wanted to be when she grew up.” She knew she loved people, loved connecting with them and helping them. She couldn’t deny her curiosity around business and people management and she knew that ultimately, nursing was not for her. She set her sights on a job search and soon landed an interview with a Japanese automotive engineering company that peaked her interest. She was hired almost on-the-spot into a salaried Human Resources position in the Chattanooga location with responsibility for more than 250 employees. When asked why she believes she was offered that position, with clearly no experience or relevant post-secondary degree, she replies candidly, “They liked me and I liked them. They believed I had the personality needed to deal with people, on-site issues of all kinds and to do so with integrity and proficiency.”

Fast-forward to 2016, to Chattanooga State Community College student, Caleb Kvale, freshman and mechanical engineering student – it’s all about economics, expediency to employment and future opportunity. Kvale chose Chattanooga State because of the Tennessee Promise Program, a scholarship and mentoring program focused on boosting the number of students that attend college in Tennessee and an option that wasn’t available in the 1990’s for graduates like Maldonado.

The Tennessee Promise Program was introduced by Governor Bill Haslam in 2015 and pays for two years of tuition and fees at any of the state’s 13 community colleges, 27 colleges of applied technology, or other eligible institution offering an associate’s degree program.

Kvale’s desire to land a job in engineering with TVA paired perfectly with the Chattanooga State’s engineering education options. Coupled with the Tennessee Promise program, he says his decision was easy. Kvale will graduate with a “Mechanical Engineering Technology Concentration,” which is an Associate of Applied Science Degree, with zero education debt. Tennessee Promise will have covered what would have been his approximate total cost of $8,622 for the 64-hour two-year program.

Students enrolled in Tennessee Promise must attend mandatory advisor meetings, complete eight hours of community service per term enrolled, as well as maintain satisfactory academic progress (a 2.0 grade point average) at their institution in order to remain eligible. According to Chattanooga State’s Vice-President of College Advancement and Public Relations, Nancy Patterson, the college welcomed a whopping 10,401 students in the fall of 2016, including more than 1,000 Tennessee Promise students, and just shy of neighboring University of Tennessee at Chattanooga’s 11,388 2015-16 enrollment.

“Like community colleges across the country, we continue to see a softening in the number of enrolled adults who are working. Our full-time equivalency (FTE) is once again more than 5,000 strong, well above FTE from 2014,” she says. Even more compelling, “Chattanooga State’s placement [employment]rate for the College is 96 percent and for our Tennessee College of Applied Technology it is 94 percent,” she explains. “Bottom-line, students who work hard can expect a great return on their investment,” says Patterson.

2014 Lee University Rugby Team

On the opposite end of the spectrum cost-wise, sits the private institution of Lee University in Cleveland, Tennessee. According to Phil Cook, vice-president of enrollment, the University is experiencing no shortage of enrollment in their four-year programs. He claims their fall 2016 enrollment of 5,302 students marked an all-time high for the University.

“Over the past two years, Lee University has experienced an 18 percent increase in our new student freshmen enrollment. The fall 2016 total was the largest freshmen class in our history, in additional to being the most academically prepared. The average ACT score of this freshmen class shattered the previous record. Further, our new transfer student enrollment increased by 16 percent over the previous year,” says Cook. Among the many factors contributing to the University’s enrollment growth, Cook cites the University’s strategic approach to awarding financial aid and its strong enrollment team. With an annual tuition of approximately $24,000 per year, with room and board, Lee caters to families shopping for academic rigor and solid Christian values, regardless of the cost.

For 2015 Lee graduate Katina Goad, the return on her investment is already high. Goad went to Lee to play on their nationally-acclaimed women’s rugby team (ranked number three in the National Small College Rugby Organization in 2015). During college, her time off the field was spent working multiple minimum wage jobs to pay for a portion of her tuition and fees, while her family assumed some of the expense on her behalf.

“Based on discussions with my dad and his willingness to invest in my education, I was confident and determined to get good grades and elevate my knowledge to a place where I would be qualified to work and earn a salary that would pay off,” she explains. And payoff it certainly has. Goad graduated debt-free and landed well- paying freelance jobs in her field prior to and immediately after graduation.

“I would say my education at Lee was definitely worth it. After being out of school for a year, I have a job that I love that, according to the market, pays competitively and includes benefits.”

For Grace Moreland, 2014 University of Tennessee at Chattanooga graduate, higher education is essential to her ability to pursue the career she’s been passionate about since fifth grade. It was then that Moreland found herself sitting in a child counselor’s office, as a result of her parents’ divorce. In counseling she found a safe place to talk about her experiences and the support of an unbiased, professional adult. It was through that experience that she decided to devote herself to one day helping other children like her.

Phil Cook, Lee Day 2017

To become a certified counselor you must obtain a Master’s degree in a related counseling track—an expensive and time-consuming commitment. Moreland chose an online Master’s degree program through Grand Canyon University, physically located in Phoenix, Arizona. The online option can be every bit as expensive as in-class time, depending on choice of school, area of study and years needed to complete.

Still, online pursuit eliminates the need to relocate and allows students like Moreland to work when not online. At the end of three years, Moreland will owe nearly $80,000 in education debt, will spend a year completing 2,000 hours in a post-graduate internship and then sit for the board licensure exam.

“For me, it’s less about the monetary return than it is about the reward I get in knowing I’m helping others,” says Moreland. “Once I’m in private practice I’ll earn anywhere from $30-$50,000 per year, depending on where I work and how long it takes me to build my clientele. The reality of acquiring education debt is daunting at times, but to me, it’s just part of it. Eventually I will pay down the debt and I will be doing something I truly love in the process,” she added.

Moreland credits her father, a CEO of a radiology company in Nashville, with pushing her to follow her dreams. “I was fortunate because my family paid for my undergraduate degree,” she says. “My dad has always pushed me to pursue as much education as possible, to position myself for the career he knows I’ve always wanted.” Since starting undergraduate studies at UTC, Moreland has worked a variety of $12 to $15/hour jobs as a private nanny, a sitter in city school aftercare programs, a waitress and a Young Life intern. “It’s never easy, going to school and working at the same time,” she says, “but if you’re committed to your goal, it’s worth it.”

For Chanda Maldonado, the former army nurse turned entrepreneur, the message is the same. “Decide what you want to do. Go after it. Don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t.” says Maldonado. “My daughter, Layah, wants to be an orthodontist. I tell her ‘well, then you will be one.’ And just about everyday we talk about how her grades and her choices can move her closer to that goal,” she says with pride for her daughter. Maldonado is helping her understand the costs, the return and the educational pathway that will lead the elementary student from classroom life to life as an accredited member of the American Board of Orthodontics.

Story by Sheri Young

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