Today’s topic is price differentials in college tuition.  

Huh!?!

As many of you have heard me say, one of the more complicated concepts in all of college today is not figuring out how much college ‘costs’, but rather in calculating precisely how much it will cost you (as in personally).  It’s not the sticker price. Fewer than 3% of us have saved enough to cover that load – remember, only about a third of students on any given campus pay the sticker.  And it’s (hopefully) not  your ‘Expected Family Contribution, or what the government formulas ‘say’ you can afford, though this is a better starting point.   This process is so complex that Education Secretary Arne Duncan told Congress that you need a Ph.D. to figure out the matrix of formulas that penalize families for some assets and savings, but not for others.  

No, figuring out what your family will actually wind up paying for a higher education requires a nuanced analysis of your student’s academic prospects and interests, your ability to demonstrate appropriately your financial need, the generosity and coffers of the schools on his list, the schools’ demand, its graduation rates, how well your student demonstrates his unique values, your student’s college readiness, and your willingness to operationalize this analysis.    

Like many other high ticket items (your car, your home, your airline tickets), many factors influence price: timing, location, cost of materials, demand, politics, even relationships.   This concept exists in college tuition, too.  Sometimes it’s ‘political’ as in, the reason most out-of-state students or international students pay more than their in-state counterparts.  Or it’s material cost related as in: art students who must pay more for supplies, or science students who need to pay more for lab fees.  Or popularity:  for several years now, University of Wisconsin business students have been paying more, per credit, than their humanities counterparts.

So you see, college pricing is complicated enough as is.  And then this.

A new proposal from Governor Scott’s Blue Ribbon Task Force on State Higher Education Reform is recommending that Florida public universities hold tuition steady for at least 3 years in select programs, notably in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) disciplines, while increasing tuition in all other areas such as humanities. The goal, of course, is to encourage students to choose STEM majors which are perceived as more productive for the state economy.  The means to do so:  price.  Now, that’s a Cyber Monday promotion if I ever heard one.  

Of course, Humanities departments across the state are fuming, both fearful that their degrees will be deemed second-class, AND that they’ll lose necessary funding – departments receive funding based on the number of students enrolled, so fewer students in history and humanities will mean less money for these departments.

Not surprisingly, I have a couple of thoughts on the issue(s).  

First, let’s remember that this is not our State’s first foray into ‘incenting’ students to pursue STEM studies. Bright Futures, the State’s lottery-funded Merit Scholarship program, was initially passed in 1997 with the hope that more of Florida’s best high school graduates would stay in state and pursue the highly sought STEM degrees.  The state was half right.   More than 150,000 students have received Bright Futures awards and our state university enrollment has indeed soared.   But enrollment in STEM fields?  That’s actually gone down in percentage terms!  One plausible explanation — our students are taking easier classes to make sure that they maintain the GPA requirements to re-qualify for the award.   So Bright Futures as a boon to the STEM pursuits has indeed been a major bust and has nearly bankrupted our schools in the process.  
Further, I’m disappointed (but not surprised) that I did NOT read about these recommendations in my morning paper.  And I want to remind everyone that even if The Herald isn’t writng about new college pricing guidelines today, the writing is, indeed, very much on the wall.  Major-based differential pricing is an idea that has been gaining some traction in other states, especially as the country looks for new, cost-neutral ways to improve education and stay competitive in a post-industrial, 21st century economy.  It’s a widely held (and statistically measurable) belief that a properly educated, high-tech workforce can jumpstart a lagging economy.  A steady pipeline of skilled technical employees keep and attract businesses.  Our students need to become them. Our schools need to grow them.    But that said,  I believe learning to create and to think critically, the types of skills developed in the humanities, are as important in today’s information-based economy as the ‘harder’ science skills, so I’m not sure that using price to play favorites in academia is an economically sustainable model.   Since the downturn, the state’s relationship to higher education and employment has been facing increased scrutiny (not just in FL, but nationwide). Using price subsidies in the front-end (admissions) to ensure state-wide competitive employment on the back-end is a proposal that I suspect will find legs among our cash-strapped government, if not our academia.  
 
So, what does this mean for you? Well, it’s just a proposal today, but if you’re the parent of a future college bound child, I personally think it unwise to overlook this proposal when considering your funding options.   For one thing, Bright Futures’ future is anything but assured — especially for middle class, liberal arts students. And since your child’s college education is likely to be one of the largest investments you’ll make, and one that will affect not just four years of his/her life, but potentially his next 40,  I’d rather err on the side of caution and consider all possibilities — political and otherwise — when developing my funding strategies.  Unsure of what those are, you may want to check out my last workshop of the year.

If you’re the parent of a college-bound student, I’m holding a Last Chance College Funding  workshop on Tuesday, December 11 at The Sagemont School in Weston.  This will be my last workshop of 2012.  I’ll cover:

 

  •     The biggest mistake parents make with FL Prepaid and other 529 plans
  •     Why it’s important to get started when your child is in 10th grade or younger
  •     The crucial questions parents should ask of every school on a student’s college list
  •     How a ‘pricey’ private college can cost less than a state school, even considering Bright Futures and FL Prepaid
  •     Why it’s taking, on average, 5+ years to graduate from college today and how to buck this trend
  •     How to compile a list of schools that maximize chances at both admissions and financial aid
  •     More!

Click here to register and get more info.

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