I think you should read this article from the Miami Herald. It is written by a father – who also happens to be a writer – to explain why UF lost his daughter to Grinnell College, a small liberal arts school you’ve probably never heard of in Grinnell, Iowa.
I first read this story when it first came out a couple of weeks ago, and it’s been on my mind ever since. But before I tell you why, let me say a few words about the two schools featured in the story.
First, Grinnell. It’s one of those colleges that can ‘change lives’ — been around since 1846, with a very progressive tradition. Grinnell is the first school west of the Mississippi River to admit women and African Americans. It’s got a high price tag, but it costs less because it’s generous…historically meeting 100% of its students’ financial needs with no-loan/loan-limited offers. Obviously I like it. It’s the kind of college that I recommend to my students who need or want a personal touch in the classroom and a great liberal arts education.
UF, by comparison, is the flagship public institution here in Florida. It is very competitive, but admittedly slipping a little; and while it’s perceived to still be very affordable, it’s more expensive than you might think. For starters, it routinely takes students 5 plus years to earn a degree. (just over 50% of entering freshman can expect to graduate in 4 years) And as a public entity, it has less discretion and well, just less, to offer as financial incentive to preferential students. That said, many of my students, friends and family members have had great experiences as a Gator.
To be clear, I’m sharing this article neither to sell Grinnell nor to criticize UF; rather because it illustrates a very important piece of the college funding puzzle… which is this…
What you Think College Costs is NOT What It Will Likely Cost You! And it is not at all out of the question that a private, prestigious and ‘so-called pricey’ education will cost you exactly what you have put aside for a public university education. But there is so much misinformation, hyperbole and fear out there that it can be paralyzing — in fact, the day this story appeared in the Herald, there were three others — all bad — on either the outrageous cost, the diminishing quality, or the crippling debt of higher ed (or all three). Note what wasn’t said in any of them: That the college funding process is so different today that none of what the pundits are writing about is even relevant. Today, there are three factors that determine how much you will pay for your child’s higher education and exactly none of them have anything to do with the ‘published price.’ They are:
1. Your Demonstrated Financial Need — determined by a Department of Education formula which can be influenced up or down by many factors including your income, age, number of students enrolled in college, assets and investments (some of your holdings are exempt from the Dept. of Ed. formulas, some are not), your student’s savings and earnings, etc. If your adjusted income is $250,000 or less, and your assets are properly positioned, you very well may qualify for financial aid at some schools.
2. Your Child’s Admissions Prospects –Researching colleges should be a family endeavor. While your child is determining academic and social fit, you need to make sure that at least some of the colleges they are targeting have the means and discretion to discount tuition for Need and for Merit. This is a nuanced process… the government gives away money based almost exclusively on the financial aid formulas, but a college can give away aid according to its own rules. It’s a good idea to identify colleges with rules that favor your child.
3. Your ability to convince a generous college of its need to pursuade (read: financially incent) your student to attend. Note that grades and scores are but two of many reasons that your student can be seen as critical to a college; other attributes can be as obvious as a musical talent and as obscure as achieving gender balance.
If this sounds outrageous to you, consider that fewer than 20% of students on campus today pay sticker price for the college they attend. That can mean that you are paying ‘today’s tuition’ at UF at a lower pre-paid amount — or that you are paying a similar amount for a so-called pricey, but generous, university. The fact is, institutional merit and need-based financial aid level the playing field between the two.
So, what does this mean for you?
First, just be open to the idea of thinking differently about how colleges work today and how you’ll fund your child’s college education. It is different than the way things worked and were priced when you applied to college. Next, understand that by thinking differently, you will see options for your children that you might have previously thought unattainable. But the most important ‘aha!’ moment is realizing that merely thinking differently without acting differently will not do you any good. All the knowledge and evidence in the world is useless without putting it to work for you.
My guess is that you’ve been ‘planning’ for your children’s college education to some degree since they were born. That they are going to college someday, and that it will cost you some money for them to go there is not a surprise. Right?
So, it comes down to this. Is your thinking, and thus your plan, still relevant or has the paradigm shifted… and if so, have you shifted your strategy accordingly? If you haven’t, you need to… or you’ll risk needlessly limiting your child’s college options, sacrificing your retirement or taking on dubious student loans.
The good news is that you have options! The sooner you learn what those are, the more significantly you will be able to lower the cost of college and send your child to a dream school without altering your lifestyle, dipping into your retirement or saddling your child with high cost/high fee debt for life!