CORVALLIS - Tuition rates nationally keep going up, many grant and loan programs have been reduced and more students than ever are wondering whether or not they have the money to attend a four-year university - AND - whether it is worth the cost.

The answer to both questions, experts say, is a resounding "yes."

It's true that pressure to balance the federal budget has caused Congress to consider some changes in grant and loan programs. Some proposals would ask students to begin repaying loans more quickly. But in general, there is still money to borrow and a wealth of private, public and specialized scholarships, grants or "work-study" programs available.

But is that potential debt really worth it?

"The bottom line is that for many of the professional careers, students still need that degree to be competitive," said Diane Dungan, an adviser in career services and head of Cooperative Education Internships at Oregon State University. "You don't need a 4.0 grade point average, but you do need to demonstrate a desire to work and learn.

"OSU Career Fairs have been glutted with recruiters looking for graduates to hire," Dungan said. "And that isn't just for high-priced jobs in engineering. They're looking almost as much for degrees in business, in science and in liberal arts."

What employers in the year 2000 will seek are people who have proven their ability to learn and keep learning, to adapt to changing times. They want students with interpersonal and leadership skills. And the place they feel those skills are best developed is at a university environment.

Some of the numbers about tuition increases during recent years are scary, experts concede - at many Oregon public colleges it's gone up about 65 percent during the past five years. For an in-state student, the tuition, fees, books, room and board, and miscellaneous expenses can add up to about $10,990 a year to attend Oregon State University.

And it's even more at other schools.

But Gov. John Kitzhaber and other leaders are pushing for a freeze on tuition. And research shows that the debt incurred by students attending a four-year university like OSU is worth it.

A study by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics has found that the average annual earnings of a person with a high school diploma was $24,308. But the average earnings of a person with four years of college leaped 58 percent to $38,620.

On average, that's $14,312 more, each and every year, for someone with four years of college under their belt. By that reasoning, a $15,000 loan debt could be largely retired in one year - and the higher earnings for the rest of a person's life is just a bonus.

Want more good news? By that same survey, four years of college cut your chances of being unemployed by more than 50 percent.

It still makes sense, experts say, to plan your education carefully, take a reasonable course load, work hard, and pursue internships that can greatly increase your chances of getting an excellent, career-related job after college.

But if you have the academic ability to succeed, don't kid yourself that a university isn't worth the expense.

In reviewing last year's OSU graduates and the jobs they have now, Dungan found education majors in a K-12 teaching position starting at $30,000. Several forestry students began jobs with salaries at $28,000. The average starting salary for a graduate with a bachelor's degree in mechanical engineering was $41,000.

Job recruiters that come to OSU see a four-year degree as a prerequisite, Dungan said. It shows them a commitment and willingness to learn that, in today's tough job market, is almost priceless.

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Diane Dungan, 503-737-0530