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Paying for College Can Be Overwhelming. Here’s What You Need to Know to Find an Affordable Option

14 minute read
Sean Gregory is a senior sports correspondent at TIME. His work has been cited in the annual Best American Sports Writing anthology nine times. His stories have won awards from the U.S. Basketball Writers Association, the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons, and his work was named a finalist for Deadline Club and Mirror awards for excellence in magazine writing and reporting on media, respectively.

For many students and their families alike, the mere thought of the college-application process generates healthy doses of agita, if not outright terror. The tests, the financial-aid maze, cutthroat selectivity and outrageous tuition bills: what’s not to hate?

In Ron Lieber’s new book, The Price You Pay for College: An Entirely New Road Map for the Biggest Financial Decision Your Family Will Ever Make, the New York Times “Your Money” columnist peels off the layers of needless complexity baked into the system. After talking to hundreds of college administrators, students and parents, he emerged with a confident outlook. Finding the right college you can afford, dear reader, is within your grasp. But you have to do your homework.

Lieber spoke to TIME about how to reprioritize what you look for in a school, avoid the emotional spirals that can lead you astray, and reap the benefits of an honest conversation with your eighth grader. (Yup, eighth grader.)

This book is less about the mechanics of saving for college and more “how do I allocate my money to get value out of college?” So what should students and families look for to extract that value?

It starts with a fundamental question. What is college to you? This isn’t meant to be some existential philosophy. It’s a non-rhetorical question. So I kept asking it, and I kept hearing basically three answers.

People go to college to have their minds grown and their minds blown. They go to have their brains disassembled and reassembled by the best possible teachers and have their minds turned into bigger and better versions of their former self. That’s part one.

Part two is about finding your people—seeking peers who are similar enough to you that you will want to make them your lifelong friends but different enough that they can change you fundamentally for the better by virtue of your exposure to them. And then it’s also about mentors. There’s a lot of good research on the value of mentorship in college. And you hope that you find at least one grown-up during those four years that can make a fundamental impact on your development as an adult.

And then you’re looking for a credential. That’s number three. If you are a first-generation student, or if you are coming from a low-income background, maybe that credential is the thing that allows you to skip a few rungs on the social-class ladder, grab onto the middle class and hang on for dear life, because you’ve got that teaching certificate, which is close to recession-proof. If yours is a middle-class family, maybe you’re a lights-out student, or an incredible artist, or a fantastic musician, and you are going to be reaching for the credential that can open doors to worlds that your family could never otherwise imagine. So you’re gunning for the Rhode Island School of Design or you’re gunning for Juilliard. If you’re a finance whiz, you try to get into Wharton as an undergrad. Or if you’re a programmer with a bent towards entrepreneurship, maybe take a shot at Stanford or MIT, the kinds of institutions that can really make a difference.

There are families where all three of those things are important, or where one piece of that three-piece pie is way bigger than the other two. But until you and your spouse, if you have one, and your kid can sit down and come to some agreement about what college is supposed to be, you can’t do a very good job of shopping.

You mention in the book that some schools, like Hamilton College, subsidize professors for having meals with students. Should you try to find schools where faculty will have you over for dinner?

Yes, at Hamilton College, they’ve done this research and discovered that even having one dinner at a faculty member’s house can make an enormous difference on a student’s academic trajectory and their satisfaction with the experience. And so what they do now is throw money at faculty members to pay for groceries to have people over for dinner. Different schools have different versions of this. Some of them will reimburse faculty members anytime they want to take students out. You want to ask about this, because if an institution hasn’t really thought it through in a granular way, then maybe they aren’t trying hard enough to make that part of the experience worth paying extra for. They just want to spout statistics about student-faculty ratio and class sizes to you. What we’re looking for, if we’re considering spending a whole lot more than whatever our state university costs, is something extra.

Is it on consumer to really find out if a school is offering these sorts of programs?

I wish schools were better at talking about what makes them distinctive. But oftentimes they have trouble talking about it, because they are not, in fact, all that distinctive.

The most unique school that I visited was the College of Wooster in Ohio. The vast majority of people there are not paying full price. They’ve got two things going for them. They have an extremely transparent pricing mechanism on the front end, where basically anybody who wants to can raise their hand in September and say, “Hey, we don’t really want to apply here until we know what kind of offer you might make us.” You can show them your grades and your transcript and your test scores if you have them, and they’ll in effect make you an offer. So you know whether the affordability is going to be in the ballpark.

The other thing that goes on there is every senior does what is in effect a mandatory thesis. And when those independent studies are done, they have the sort of academic Woodstock every April. Just about every senior presents the work that they’ve done, and it’s incredible. You just roam from building to building and they’re all these presentations, all the local restaurants bring delicious food, and it’s just a big party, except it’s about a celebration of the work that each and every one of these seniors have done. It made me want to quit my job and go back to school.

Not every kid is going find that interesting. But you need to get to know your kid. You need to make a determination in your family about what it is that you’re shopping for. And then you go looking, asking a lot of pointed questions about whatever that thing is.

How do you reckon with the inequities in the system? Some people may have the time and resources to ask the kinds of questions you’re talking about, to really investigate value. But what if, say, you’re a first-generation student and you and your parents are working until midnight to make ends meet? Is there something those folks can do too to put themselves in optimal positions?

There are all sorts of people out there who would like nothing more than to reach out and help bring a first-generation student along. But you have to make yourself noticed and heard. You have to find your way to these admissions offices, especially if you don’t have a guidance counselor who has the time to help you at the high school. Most of these schools are keenly aware of their social responsibility, given that they take a bunch of federal dollars, to help the people with the least. And if they don’t or if they won’t, then you turn and walk and you go someplace else.

I would encourage more affluent families to think about a role to play here, too, in equity. If the schools that you’re looking at employ a lot of adjunct professors and only pay them $3,000 per class, if the school that you’re thinking about enrolling them in is not particularly diverse, then you should ask questions yourself on behalf of the students who are being left behind. Because maybe you don’t want to go to a school that is so disengaged from questions of equity that it employs contingent labor and only has 11% of its students who are on Pell Grants or only 22% who are people of color, way below the national averages.

One positive from the book is that many people don’t pay the sticker prices listed at many schools. So when you’re reading this, you can breathe a little easier since there are ways to get merit aid. However, you’ve also pointed out that a lot of merit aid is manipulative. What do you have to watch out for?

You have to do some analytical work here that should not be necessary. I don’t mean to normalize it, because I’m not crazy about the system as it exists. But I’m trying to help people navigate it as opposed to blowing it up and building a new one, because we all have to live in the world as it is, at least for now.

I would imagine it’s a long list of, you know, 500 schools on your wall ordered roughly by selectivity. Slots 1 through 50 or so, those are schools that don’t have to offer any merit aid because so many people are willing to come. Then maybe slots, let’s call it 50 to 100, they’re offering merit aid to many of the best students, but certainly not all. And then, call it slots 100 to 200, they are trying very hard to still have 5 to 10% of the student body paying full price and often those are international students or just desperate alumni whose kids are there on a probationary basis. That’s real money to those schools, because they can use those full-price dollars to subsidize lower-income kids and try and provide some equity.

Below there, basically, everybody’s getting a pony. Often most parents don’t realize that everybody’s getting something, or they’re willfully ignorant of that, because it feels good to run around town saying, “My kid just got a five-figure academic scholarship from this-and-that college.” And it’s not in the school’s interest for families to know that everybody’s getting the money, because then maybe not as many people will feel special and singled out and the parents won’t feel like they got a gold star.

You recommend having a “brief but deliberate conversation” about college merit aid with your eighth grader a couple of months after grammar-school graduation. You recently wrote in the New York Times, “And just like drugs, you should talk to your kid about it before someone else does.” Why?

I have every sympathy for the adolescent psychologists that are all up in my mentions and my inbox telling me to knock it off, that I have no idea of the damage that I might cause by putting all this financial pressure on kids in addition to the academic pressure. But I do not think it’s appropriate to hide the truth from teenagers about matters of six-figure importance that directly affect their lives, in part because they have every ability, with just a few keystrokes, to discover the truth for themselves: that there’s all of this merit-aid discounting going on.

Even if you succeed in hiding all of this stuff from your kids, they may arrive at junior year and discover how things work and say, “How could you not have told me the truth?” If your kids slacked off the first couple of years of high school, or just chose to do something else with their free time other than their homework, they may now regret not having worked harder and resent you for having deliberately hid an important grown-up truth from them.

I have a son who graduated from eighth grade last year. I did not have the merit-aid talk with him. Am I screwed?

No, no, no. It’s not too late at all. And it doesn’t have to be a big, elaborate talk where you set aside two hours. It can be as simple as this: “Look, we want you to know that there’s a system at work here in evaluating high school students. It’s not just about who gets in, it’s also about what they pay, and having good grades and having good scores may make it possible for you to go to a different set of schools at a lower price than might be the case otherwise. But we also want you to know that we do not intend to put pressure on you. We just feel like it’s only fair that you know how things work. And if you do not end up being a straight-A student, it doesn’t mean that we’ll be disappointed in you, as long as you put your best effort in.”

Is the pandemic going to disrupt higher education long-term?

I don’t believe it will disrupt higher education long-term in any significant way. The thing that was so extraordinary about what happened in the pandemic is what happened in August and September. To the extent that schools were willing to throw their doors open, students came back for the most part. They came back willingly, perhaps recklessly, because so many of them got sick. Although thankfully, not many of them were permanently impacted by their illness. That’s a separate question apart from what might have happened to older and more compromised people in their communities.

So I’m not arguing that this was a good thing to do. I’m just observing from the sidelines. All of these people desperately wanted to come back and so, what does that tell us? What it tells us is that there’s something about the residential undergraduate experience in the United States that is vital. People want it no matter what, and they’re willing to take risks to get it.

As I mentioned, I have a son in ninth grade, and like so many, I’m kind of dreading the college-application process. You also have a daughter in the ninth grade, so you’re also on the cusp of going through this. [Lieber also has a daughter in kindergarten.] Any final words to the anxious parents reading this?

Just because you can’t afford everything does not mean you should not have hope. There will be a great place for your kid to go. One of the lessons that I’ve learned from reporting the book, going to schools that I had never seen before, at least one or two of which I hadn’t even heard of before, is that if there’s anything good about our system of American higher education, is that there are a lot of choices. There are mentors and professors who know more about their respective subjects than nearly anybody on the planet. There are caring administrators, and there are credentials that are meaningful at so many more places than any of us can possibly know or ever even investigate.

I ended the reporting for the book feeling pretty hopeful that, no matter what kind of student my daughters turn out to be, there would be a place for them that would not cost $80,000 a year. But knowing all that I know now, we’re definitely going to start sooner. We’re going to learn more. We’re going to invest in the research and the visits, even if it’s painful financially, so that we’re not making decisions on the basis of spiel, on the basis of whether it rained for the four hours we were able to devote to this or that place. We’re going to ask more questions than maybe any family in the history of the college admissions process. And my daughter’s going to like it.

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Write to Sean Gregory at sean.gregory@time.com

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