Published electronically July 7, 2015
DOI: 10.1137/15S013922M3 Challenge Problem 2015M3 Challenge Introduction 2015Authors:
Michael An, Guy Blanc, Evan Liang, Sandeep Silwal, and Jenny Wang (North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics, Durham, NC)Sponsor:
Daniel Teague (North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics, Durham, NC)Summary
: Senior year is often the most anticipated year for high school students nationwide. The independence and freedom that come with graduation leads into an exciting time for change. Perhaps the most important decision is deciding whether or not to apply for college, which has not only a growing price tag but also a hefty opportunity cost – the forgone income from getting a job straight out of high school. For many families, college is a burden, especially because college sticker prices can be misleading. In addition to the question of whether attending college is worth it or not, students are forced to consider the pros and cons of different career fields. STEM industries are growing rapidly and are touted by the media to have greater financial return and higher job stability. How can high school students make the right decisions that will ensure that they reach their targeted quality of life in the future?
Our job was to develop a mathematical model that can be used as a tool to help students evaluate different higher education choices, such as STEM vs. non-STEM majors and 4-year degrees vs. 2-year associate degrees. The first step in this process is to give a more accurate summary of how much attending college would cost. The current method of determining this value is by using the EFC (Expected Family Contribution) value. However, the EFC does not account for the amount of loans one would be expected to pay back or the yearly increases in the cost of college. Our college cost metric accounts for both of these factors, as well as different kinds of higher education plans and forgone working time. Surprisingly, for most students, this loss in the form of monetary wages, approximately $15,750 per year, is the largest cost of attending college. Based on this information, a student and his/her family can decide whether the student should pursue a degree, and if so, what type of degree.
We then sought to create a model that evaluates the costs and rewards of pursuing a STEM degree as compared to other higher education choices. We created a simulation that measured the amount of money that students with different degrees would earn, taking into account factors such as unemployment and inflation. We observed that STEM degrees generally yield higher returns than non-STEM and associate degrees, and all three tend to earn more money than a high school diploma.
Finally, we devised a tool that could help students determine what field of higher education they should enter, if they do decide to enroll in post-secondary education. The tool considers not only a student's personal career field preference but also job satisfaction factors such as level of responsibility, opportunity of advancement, location and contribution to society. Therefore, this important life decision will be based not only on personal interests or monetary compensation, but also on other important but oft-forgotten factors that might affect the quality of life.
Our model accurately evaluates various objective criteria, and provides means by which a student can incorporate personal preference for degree options; however, higher education is ultimately a very personal decision, and some students may opt away no matter how financially beneficial it is.