I read a recent NY Times article that prominently featured Florida’s higher education system –  for all the wrong reasons.   

Worst In The Nation:  Since 2008, our legislature has decreased by 24% the amount of funding for Florida universities.  We are now at the same funding levels that we were at in 2003.  That’s so long ago, the Iraq War hadn’t even begun and it puts our fair state university system dead last in the nation on spending per student! 

Among other maladies, the cuts have left us with a 2003-level number of professors teaching to a record 2012-level number of students, which means fewer or larger classes, fewer hands-on experience in labs, research projects and school-sponsored internships and a new normal graduation schedule of six (not four) years.  That means most students — even those with pre-paid plans — are now forced into debt in order to graduate.

It’s not pretty, but the story actually gets worse from there.  At the same time the state was slashing higher education funding and quality, we were paying more.  Tuition has been rising 15% each year (that’s about 12X the rate of inflation and 3X more than the national average), with more and even higher hikes expected this year.   For example, University of Florida President Bernie Machen wants to increase tution at his school as much as 30%!  We are paying a premium price for an increasingly poor product (UF has slipped from 47 to 58 in the US News Rankings)

As a parent, lifetime Floridian and an education advocate, I’m sick.  But that’s not the point of my essay.  Instead, I want to talk today about what we as consumers would do if faced with these conditions in any other market.  What, for example, would you do if the car company you had been buying from for years, stopped funding R&D and started offering you cars with 2003 technology at a 2012 premium price?  Me thinks you’d find a new car company.  Or, what if you were an employee who was asked to work longer, harder and with fewer resources for less and less money.  Me thinks you might look for a better job with a different employer. 

I don’t want to belabor the point, but as a higher education consumer, you have similar options.  With sticker prices from $20-$60,000 per year, most of us can’t and none of us wants to pay full price for college these days.  And certainly no one chooses to pay more for an inferior product.  I know that seems counter-intuitive, but with financial aid and merit-based institutional scholarships serving as the great price equalizer, you don’t have to!  So-called expensive, private schools (that graduate students in 4.1 years on average) can cost the same or even less than our state universities.   The College Board estimates that fewer than 20% of students pay the ‘sticker price’ for college and that the average discount is 42%.   You just have to be a savvy consumer and learn where to look, how to properly position your student, and understand the rules of the game.   

And the time to start is now, or when your student is in 9th, 10th, or 11th grade.  The earlier you plan for this enormous expense, the better. 

I’m often baffled how we will spend hours and hours researching cars, televisions, or furniture before making a purchase, but when it comes to pricing colleges we go in blind, hoping for a scholarship.  I do it too – I recently spent several hours researching a pitching machine for my son’s little league team before making a purchase.  If parents spent as much time understanding college pricing as I spent looking at the different devices to launch a baseball towards a 9 year old, they would be far more educated on the whole process.

Here’s your chance to get educated on higher education.  I’m holding a public workshop on March 21 in Weston, where I’ll discuss How to Pay for College in Today’s Economy.  Specifically, I’ll cover:

  • How an expensive, private college can cost less than a state university
  • Why EVERYONE should apply for financial aid, regardless of income
  • How they determine what you are expected to pay for college, with strategies to manage the formula and save money
  • The most overlooked yet critical statistic to research when comparing colleges
  • Assets that count, assets that don’t count, and some assets that count more than others
  • More!

There is absolutely no cost to attend this event, but missing out on this information will prove costly.  Do yourself, your student, and your family a favor and click here to register.  I look forward to seeing you there.

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