College Costs: Aim High, Pay Low Reply

aid1If you’ve been paying attention to the news for the past day or so, you may have seen reports with headlines like, “College Costs Slow Down,” “Are Soaring College Costs Finally Leveling Off?” and “Annual Rise in Cost of Public College Slows.” All of these articles focus on a new report from the College Board showing that on average, tuition and fees at four-year public schools rose just a hair under 3% this year, the smallest increase in roughly four decades. Obviously that’s good news for students, applicants, and parents everywhere.

That grain of positivity is what most news outlets have chosen to focus on, but if you read the report closely, the news isn’t nearly as good as headlines like the above suggest. First off, that moderate 3% rise in college costs still outpaces the inflation rate by a factor of two. Secondly, the reported slowdown in rising costs applies only to tuition and fees, not room and board; adding those in actually doubles the reported annual cost figure. Thirdly, if you’re an out-of-state student attending a public school or any student attending a private school, the reported slowing of rising costs doesn’t apply to you. And lastly, the report also highlights a marked drop in both federal grants and federal loans, which combined equal a loss of nearly $15 billion in college funding.

Oh, I almost forgot, as a final bonus the report notes that roughly 60% of students now graduate with debt. The average amount: $26,500.

Selective Schools + Hefty Price Tags = Saving Money?

Now, I want to draw your attention to another article, this one featured in the New York Times almost a month ago. The piece, written by David Leonhardt, also focuses on something from the College Board, but this time a new initiative rather than report. To summarize, the College Board is now sending information packets to top-scorers on both the SAT and PSAT whose families fall into the bottom 25% of earners. The packets, which will reach nearly 30,000 high-school seniors this year, also include application fee waivers to six colleges of the student’s choice.

Why are they doing this? The project is a direct response to studies showing that more often than not, high-scoring test takers from low-income families don’t even apply to elite, selective colleges. And that’s truly a shame though not that surprising if you stop to think about it. Take, for example, Harvard University. Maybe you’ve heard of it? Per the website of this slightly-well-known and academically elite school, total cost of tuition, room, board, and fees for the 2013-2014 academic year will be a whopping $56,407 – and that’s not even the most expensive school out there! A number like that is enough to make many applicants stop in their tracks. After all, the U.S. Census Bureau reports that median household income in the U.S. from 2007-2011 was $52,762. When it costs more to attend a school for a single year than most families bring in during that same period, some students are understandably skeptical about applying to such an institution. If their family makes considerably less than that median income, applying to one of those schools may seem like a complete waste of time.

This is a perfect example of numbers not always being what they seem, though. While it technically costs more than $50K to attend Harvard for a year, that number is much less scary than it appears on first glance, particularly if you’re a student from a lower-income family. In fact, right next to the tuition figure on the Harvard website is a remarkable and vitally important statistic: parents who make less than $65,000 per year, notably more than the household median income, are expected to contribute zero dollars toward their son or daughter attending Harvard.

Zero. 0. Zip. Nada. Nothing.

Right below that fact is another remarkable figure: For 90% of U.S. families, Harvard financial aid makes it possible to attend their school for the same or less than it would cost for a student to attend a state school.

Read that again. This is just one example of something that’s a fact across most elite schools in the U.S., from Harvard and Yale to the rest of the Ivy League to selective liberal arts colleges in cities across the country: oftentimes, the institutions with the heftiest price tags are also the ones with the most financial aid to offer and most generous funding policies in place when it comes to families, from the poorest to even those making considerably more than average.

Take A Chance, Save Some Cash

I wanted to use the articles at the beginning of this post to make an extremely important point: you should never let the price tag dissuade you from applying to a school at which your grades, scores, and background make you a viable candidate. This is particularly important for students from families of more limited financial means. The simple fact is that many of those ultra-expensive and selective schools will ultimately cost you nothing to attend if you are accepted. Compare that to even the in-state-student cost at most state schools and you can see the massive savings possible over four years. So if you score well on the PSAT, SAT, or ACT and have a solid GPA and resume, even if you don’t receive one of those new packets being sent out by the College Board at least consider applying to elite, expensive schools. You might be surprised at how affordable they really are.

In other words:

Aim high, pay low.

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