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photo submitted by Kim Sapkowski

Kim Sapkowski's family is debating whether or not college makes economic sense for them.

Going to college keeps getting more expensive. In 2011 the College Board estimated it would cost $20,000 a year, on average, for students to go to an in-state, public university.

Kim Sapkowski’s family is asking themselves if a college education and the accompanying tens of thousands of dollars in debt are worth it. Her husband is going back to school, her son doesn’t know if school makes economic sense, and Sapkowski is somewhere in the middle. She has a bachelor’s degree and a master’s degree.

“I have to be honest, I’ve been struggling over the last five years, was it worth it?,” Sapkowski said. “I’d say yes, it was worth it,” she pauses as if unsure. “The education was worth it.”

Sapkowski’s husband Tom is an auto technician (a term he prefers to mechanic) at a General Motors dealership in Grand Rapids. He has seen his income fall by about $30,000 annually in five years. Kim Sapkowski worked part-time so she could spend time with her kids, but had to find full-time work to make up some of that lost income. Even with her education it took two years for her to find full-time work.

Despite seeing his wife go through that experience, Tom Sapkowski thinks a degree is critical to his upward mobility. He’s going back to school this fall at Ferris State University to earn a bachelor’s degree. He hopes to use it to move on from work that is physically punishing and continues to be slow.

“Auto technicians at big dealerships get paid by the job. If there’s no work coming in you’re just not getting paid,” Kim Sapkowski said. “He’s looked at other jobs and he knows he’s qualified.  He has the experience, but they’re asking for a bachelor’s degree and nothing less.

Her son, 16-year-old Peter, entered the family debate when he alarmed his parents by mentioning he wasn’t sure if it made sense to go to college. He might prefer to start working on a trade now, and work his way slowly through school. After some family discussion he said he’s not sure what he wants to do yet, and that his parents just “freaked-out.”

“When my son said ‘I’ll start working on a trade in high school,’ I struggled with it,” Kim Sapkowski admitted. “We said, ‘ultimately, it’s your choice but we really wish you’d go to college and explore your options’.”

Statistics suggest a bachelor’s degree in the United States correlates strongly with higher income. A bachelor’s degree is expected on average to add about $26,000 to annual income than a high school degree. Associates degrees confer an economic benefit too, although a smaller one. But parents increasingly need or expect their children to shoulder some of the cost. That’s the case in the Sapkowski household.

“Our parents paid our way through college. I don’t think we’ll be able to do that.”

Kim Sapkowski thinks you can’t put a price on the life experiences her kids, Peter and 10-year-old Kate, could gain from college. But it’s equally important to her because it seems like a way her children will find economic security and do better financially than she and her husband.

“We’ve found ourselves in a place where we thought at this point we thought we’d be more secure than what we are,” she said. “We look back at our parents and they were pretty secure. My parents grew up during the Great Depression.  I think that generation was keenly aware of economic instability and therefore, they created policies and an economic climate that was less volatile than what we have now.”

Sapkowski is still happy with her life, her job, and her choices, but she says she does worry about the economic landscape her children will inherit.

“I know that our political leaders and our community leaders have some great plans for the future. But you hope those things take hold,” She said. “Right now we’re in such a transition and the transition in my mind is just taking far too long to happen. It’s hard to hang on to that hope. And you hope that those plans that our community leaders and our political leaders have, that they’re on the right track.”