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The Controversy over College Costs

Original post made by Doing College on Mar 17, 2013

One article decries runaway college tuition and rising student debt, placing blame squarely on shoulders of colleges. Writers of these articles believe that colleges should be held accountable for wooing students to their campuses, showcasing athletic facilities, newly minted interdisciplinary majors and advanced technologies without offering a shred of financial advice. These folks also lament the complexity of the financial aid process and just stop short of calling the government student loan system a scam. On the other side are those who label the student loan crisis a 'myth.' This month's issue of The Atlantic enthusiastically extolls "college [as] the best investment you can make." With colorful bar charts and pie graphs we see that the long-term return on investment for a bachelor's degree is a whopping 16.2% while the stock market hands you back a mere 6.8% over the long haul. The authors claim that "college is such a good investment…it might even justify more student debt."

Caught between these conflicting points of view, parents come to my office asking "Can you help me find scholarships for my student?" If parents fail to bring up finances, I do. "What are your plans for paying for college?" is a question which opens the mystery box of college affordability and begins to guide families to examine all their options. Just looking at college tuition and fees is an eye opener. Throw in room and board and families get the idea quickly. I know we are on a roll when asked "How does cost of living in different areas of the country figure into the costs of attending college?"

When thinking about college funding, think one size does not fit all. There are those families who are full need—these students are most likely to turn away from a college education because they grow fearful of student debt and the complexity of applying for financial aid. That's unfortunate because it is the low income student with good grades who is most likely to receive a solid chunk of need-based change—if only they can get the timely information and support they need to apply for it.

Then there are those who have partial need—the middle incomers. These families have a uniquely frustrating situation, neither poor enough to get need-based aid nor rich enough to afford the full sticker price. Many families in our community fall into this category. They often look to our state's public system for some relief. Of course, the price tag has doubled over the last 15 years, so the public system may not provide as much relief as it once did. Students from these families are often positioned well to compete for merit aid, financial aid that is not based on need, but rather on academic excellence. This aid takes the form of scholarships or grants awarded by colleges that you don't have to pay back. The deal here is developing a college list that includes schools most likely to offer that particular student the award they need to make attendance feasible without breaking the bank.

The last need category includes those who have no need at all. They can afford the sticker price at the most costly colleges. Yet many of these families are also asking about scholarships and grants—thinking why pay more if you don't have to? A growing number of colleges are offering more merit aid to attract top students each year. These teens boost their college rankings since test scores is one major criterion on which these rankings are based. Increasingly, colleges sweeten the deal for students who are highly desirable, and the most desirable applicants are often the most well to do. These kids are more likely to attend better high schools, and get prepped and tutored to achieve higher GPAs and test scores. So those who can afford it most will do better in terms of merit aid than those who have difficulty affording college.

We support a system of higher education where families truly in need often do not figure out how to get the need based aid available to them, and the most merit money may go to those who need it least. Colleges compete for top students and deplete their coffers each cycle by offering substantial merit awards and spending millions on promotion to get the best students to apply. Then there are the numerous gimmicks that get students to disclose grades, test scores and even their family's financial data on various websites…all disguised neatly as tools to help find the best academic and financial fit. Tools such as price calculators, college matching systems, and the like abound and families often wonder…"how did they get so much information about us?" Of course, someone has to pay for all of this stuff, so tuition and fees must rise. This is the price tag associated with colleges competing for a thin slice of the most capable (often wealthier) students rather than attending to the basic mission of providing a good education to the most students. And those costs get passed on to the rest. How ironic is that?

Elizabeth LaScala Ph.D. guides college, transfer and graduate school applicants through the complex world of admissions. She develops best match college lists, offers personalized interview and essay coaching, and tools and strategies to help students tackle each step of the admissions process with confidence and success. Elizabeth helps students from all backgrounds to maximize merit and financial aid awards. Visit www.doingcollege.com; Call (925) 891-4491 or email at elizabeth@doingcollege.com

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