04/24/2013 10:59 am ET | Updated Jun 24, 2013

Questions for Your College of Choice

Millions of high school students have now received college acceptance letters. Many middle class Americans will also learn how much financial aid they will receive from these institutions and what they will need to borrow to make up the difference.

As president of Ivy Tech in Indiana, the nation's largest singly accredited community college system, I recognize that we are in the midst of a college affordability crisis. Students are now graduating with at least $25,000 in debt, loans they can't pay back because they can't get a job. The Consumer Protection Agency estimates that student loan debt exceeds the $1 trillion mark.

Before taking out a student loan, one that it may be impossible to pay back after graduation, I propose that parents and students need to learn what the ROI is at their college of choice. These are the questions to ask the admissions office:

  1. What percentage of recent graduates found a job in his or her chosen field of study?
  2. Does the college have any programs with local businesses that hire recent graduates?
  3. How many members of your faculty actually work in the fields that they teach? Have they been instrumental in securing jobs in those industries for recent graduates of your institution
  4. Does your institution have an established internship or work study program that allows students to get work experience while they are attending school?
  5. What is the average student loan debt incurred by your most recent graduates?

No one would buy a home without an engineer's report and many do extensive research before paying for a new or used car. Why should higher education be any different?

I ascertain that by asking the right questions before accepting a college's offer, students and parents are facing the practical reality that a college degree is an investment. It is the institution of higher education's obligation to demonstrate that either a two year or four year degree is worth the money expended to achieve it.

Parents and students will find that their local community college often offers a better ROI than four year colleges. It makes sense financially to explore what a local community college offers before committing to spending more than $75,000 for a four-year residential college experience.

Many community colleges now have partnerships with local businesses to train their employees. Others offer certificate programs that fast track a student into a job like court reporting, for example, with starting salaries at around $60,000.

Even if a student wants to receive a four-year degree, it makes financial sense to take the first two years of core courses at a community college and transfer to a four-year institution. Not only are community college courses less expensive than those at four-year institutions, but living at home for two years saves on housing and food costs.

We cannot afford to have our young people saddled with debt before they even begin their careers. It is time for a frank discussion about college affordability. A discussion that should begin long before that admissions letter and financial aid package arrives in the mailbox.