Run the Numbers
A few simple steps and some tough questions can help families tackle the cost of college
More than 2 million Americans have just three weeks to make what will probably be one of the biggest financial bets of their lives: where to go to college.
Unfortunately, the odds of making a mistake are high because many colleges and lenders fail-sometimes intentionally-to provide the basic information students need to keep college costs within their budgets. Many schools, for example, ignore at least the spirit of vague federal laws requiring them to give students plenty of warning about scholarship details and total costs. And the New York State attorney general has launched an investigation into whether colleges and lenders have been illegally steering students and parents away from the cheapest education loans. Such tactics can be especially effective on college applicants, most of whom are young adults whose biggest previous financial decision may have been which sneaker to buy.
The costs of making a mistake have never been higher. About 40 percent of all students drop out of college and so get little career or earnings boost-but are often left with big bills. And this year's freshmen will face the risk of the biggest bills in history, as colleges around the country are raising tuition to new records. The California State universities' fees will jump 10 percent this fall; the University of Kentucky's, 9 percent. Even accounting for increases in federal Pell grants and other financial aid, students at public universities will probably have to scrape together about $14,000 from their own families next year, up several hundred dollars from last year. Meanwhile, students who get no scholarships and choose to pay the sticker prices of the most expensive private universities will have to pony up more than $50,000.
But the payoff to making a good decision is still lavish. Those who choose the right college, and make the grades and payments to receive a degree, earn about 40 percent more than those who drop out of college. That kind of jackpot is what is inspiring Olga Nuñez, 23, to ask plenty of questions about the financial aid offer she expects from a community college in New Jersey. She's being careful this time around because of the blunder she made at 20, when she was thrilled to get a small scholarship from private Wheelock College in Massachusetts. She didn't notice then that much of the rest of her aid package was loans. And she didn't check out the school to see if she'd be comfortable there. After just one year of feeling isolated and becoming alarmed by her new college debts, she dropped out. "Now I have almost $15,000 in loans," she says.
"This time, I'm going to do it right."
Financial aid experts and students like Nuñez say that a few hours of research and some simple strategies are all it takes to tilt the odds in students' favor.
Step 1. When Joe Paul Case, director of financial aid at Amherst College, helps friends decide which college to choose, he says the first step is to figure out just how much each college is going to cost. So he sits down with all the student's financial aid award letters, a big pad of paper, and a pencil. He draws a grid, writes the name of each school at the top of a column, and then starts to tear his hair out. The very first and most important number-the total cost of a year at the school, including tuition, fees, room, board, books, travel, and other reasonable expenses-is often left off award letters and college websites. Many schools reveal their total costs only upon request, so that their high prices don't scare applicants away. "They don't want to have confrontations with families" about costs but instead want students to get excited and say, "Oh, look how much scholarship there was," Case says.
Once over the excitement, families can call the schools and ask for the total cost of attendance or estimate it by adding about $3,700 to tuition, fees, room, and board. To get the net out-of-pocket costs for the first year, just subtract grants and scholarships from each school's total cost. Loans and work-study jobs are often good deals, but they still eventually come out of the pocket of the student or parent.
Experienced students warn against stopping there, however. The goal isn't just to pay for freshman year but to get the student through to a degree. And that means asking the school-and the student-tough questions. Andrew Blucker, a freshman at Tennessee Tech, now realizes every student should investigate the rules for and likelihood of renewing each scholarship, for example. Money awarded because of a student's need, such as Pell grants, won't be renewed if the income of the student or parent gets a sudden boost. And Blucker was shocked to learn how easy it is to lose merit scholarships. He is about to become one of 50 percent of Tennessee HOPE scholarship recipients who lose them because of low grades after just one year. "College was quite a bit more difficult than I expected," Blucker says. It's more difficult than most students expect. Tennessee's research shows that more than 60 percent of students who leave high school with a B-plus grade-point average end their freshman year with a sub-B average. That's a warning to students who accept scholarships that require maintaining high grades in college.
How long? In addition, figuring out the cost of a degree means asking how long it will take the student to get through the coursework. Most college students now take at least five years. But there's a great variation from school to school, as a few quick clicks on the federal government's College Opportunities Online Locator website (http://nces.ed.gov/ipeds/cool/index.aspx) show.
Alas, once they've figured out their bottom line, most families are unpleasantly surprised. The ugly reality is that most colleges feel they simply can't afford to provide enough aid for every student. And that leaves students who can't afford college with two solutions: cut their costs, and raise extra funds. But the way students make up the cash shortages can influence their chances of graduating.
A growing number of students are saving money by living at home and spending the first couple of years in low-priced community colleges. Those students need to be especially disciplined, however, because many community colleges have a low rate of transferring students on to four-year schools.
Raising cash can also be tricky. Working no more than 15 hours a week can earn students about $2,000 over a school year, enough to cover books and extra expenses. Better yet, studies show the discipline of a part-time job improves grades. But working more than that tends to steal time away from homework and is associated with a higher dropout rate.
Nearly 7 percent of college students also raise extra cash through private scholarships from charities, clubs, and businesses. But the biggest prizes go to the early birds. Only a handful of contests are still accepting applications in April.
One of the most effective ways to get more aid is to call, write, or, best of all, visit the aid offices of the student's top-choice school. Students who can supply good reasons and evidence for needing more money can ask for a "professional judgment review" of their award. Job loss or unusual but necessary costs such as hospital or funeral bills are the kinds of factors that tend to win the most additional aid, officers say. Unwillingness to divert money from payments on the Hummer or beachfront vacation home typically won't win sympathy or money. Students or parents who have low-balled their income or savings on financial aid applications should not appeal. Officials taking a harder look at a family's finances can-and sometimes do-reduce aid.
A growing number of schools are also receptive to appeals based on offers from competing schools. Some universities, such as Carnegie Mellon and Harvard, encourage students to give them a chance to match other colleges' awards. (They may not respond to offers from schools they don't compete with, however.) Other schools prefer to be approached more diplomatically.
It took Janean Laidlaw of Williamstown, Mass., five hours of scouring through websites and college catalogs to figure out the real costs of the eight schools her son, Hal, got into in 2003. And then she discovered that Hal's top choice, Swarthmore, would cost the family $16,000, or as much as 22 percent of the family's after-tax income, and was thousands of dollars higher than his other choices. So she wrote a letter noting that other schools had been more generous, wondering if those schools "had looked at us differently," and explaining it would be difficult for the family to live on three-quarters pay. After an initial rejection, Swarthmore offered to replace Hal's loans with grants. Though sorely tempted, in the end, Hal chose to study math and computer science at Princeton, a less expensive option. Now a senior, Hal is being recruited by tech companies, and the Laidlaws' oldest daughter just received a nice offer from Columbia. "We're very lucky," Laidlaw says. Of course, the Laidlaws also put in the effort to increase the odds that financial aid luck would favor them.
Considering Aid Offers?
--Find out the college's total cost of attendance.
--Deduct grants and scholarships to calculate your out-of-pocket cost.
--Determine what the requirements are to have a scholarship renewed for subsequent years.
--Figure out how long it's likely to take to get a degree. Most students now need at least five years.
--Weigh the savings from living at home for two years and going to community college vs. the chance that you won't transfer to a four-year school.
--Decide how many hours a week you could work at a job without hurting your grades.
--Look for last-minute scholarships with late deadlines.
--Appeal to the college financial aid office for a better deal if your family has evidence of greater need.
If You're Running Behind...
It's not too late to apply for college scholarships. U.S. News has compiled a list of eight scholarship programs suitable for last-minute applicants, with deadlines ranging from April 30 through September 17 and awards of $300 to $10,000. Most require an essay: Questions include "What is the future of the printed book?" and "If you could trade places with someone for 24 hours, who would it be and why?" The list is available at usnews.com/lastminute.
This story appears in the April 16, 2007 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.