College Pete

Higher Ed’s ‘New Normal: Adapt or Else

Higher Ed’s ‘New Normal: Adapt or Else

The measure of intelligence is the ability to change.”
― Albert Einstein
“Those who cannot change their minds cannot change anything.”
― George Bernard Shaw
“It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent, but rather the one most adaptable to change.”
― Leon C. Megginson

As many of my readers know, I’m both a former high school history teacher and mid-level executive at a Fortune 500 telecom company.   It may seem an odd pairing to some, but my former career choices have served me well, as business and education continue to converge at a faster pace than anyone might have predicted.

And as a student of both (MA/MBA, International Rel. and Business), I am certain that when this era’s history is written, the ability and WILLINGNESS to adapt quickly to ‘New Normals’ (i.e., changing conditions like technology, demographic shifts, globalization) will be the characteristics that distinguish the successful  from the less so.  This is especially so as it relates to Higher Education.

So for starters, just in case you haven’t been getting my memo(s), I wanted to recap with you some of the ‘new normal’  conditions  we are facing with our higher education system:

  •     College Debt has just about reached $1 trillion, up from less than $400 billion in 2004, and both the number of borrowers and the amount borrowed increased by a staggering 7% between 2004 and 2012.


  •     We’ve set a new record in this ‘new normal’: one-in-five households now owe student loan debt!  Yet median household incomes have fallen by nearly 7% since 2001.


  •      Tuition has risen 68% at public universities in the past decade, while state and local educational appropriations fell by nearly one third of their pre-recession high in 2001

I know that taken in total, this confluence of bad trends can make it seem as though this ‘New Normal’ sucks – and more appropriately, that an affordable college education without debilitating debt, homelessness or preserving retirement is simply unattainable — especially for the myriad professional, responsible, forgotten ‘middle class’ Americans who seem to have been disproportionately affected by these challenges.  But that’s just not the case!

Over the years, I’ve issued many a ‘wake-up’ call, detailing both the challenges AND more importantly, the OPPORTUNITIES that lie within the NEW NORMAL.  Yes, it’s true:   paying for college ‘aint what it used to be.’  It is different now.  Notice I said “different”,  not worse.  Today, colleges set and then DISCOUNT their prices – so much so that nearly 2/3 of students will pay LESS than sticker… often considerably less (as in the average discount is upwards of 40%). If you properly set your expectations for today and arm yourself accordingly, then the process and the price of college will wind up being pretty similar to what an upwardly mobile, middle class American family has always paid for their children’s education.  

(Note that I’m such a geek that I actually did a  study to prove this – and you can click here to read more about my analysis of pricing at Amherst College from 1957 — 2011)

The difference is in your capacity to adapt.  And since your need to pay for college is likely to happen sooner than you think, a leisurely approach to change will not work.  The edge goes to those parents who see the changes more as an opportunity and challenge than a threat.

But it’s obvious to me that most parents still are reluctant to take action.  Why? I think it’s because we live in a trust-damaged, shell shocked, post-recession world where anything different is daunting.  It breeds Fear, Mistrust, Misinformation. And More Fear.  And what do most people do when they feel like this?  They either do nothing at all, or they do the same thing they’ve always done.  The result –  most  families are not even close to maximizing their college choices or their eligibility for discounts.   That means that thousands of deserving teens will be forced to attend lesser colleges, never apply to schools their parents mistakenly think are unaffordable, graduate with a sick amount of crippling debt or not finish because they simply run out of money and options.  That’s a crying shame, and it’s flat out wrong — most of my clients get accepted to and get a discount from one of their child’s top choices.  Why?  Because they are armed with the facts and take appropriate action to tip the odds in their favor.

I get more and more excited the closer we get to Decision Day (May 1 – deposits are due).  There is no bigger thrill for an 18 year-old than getting that ‘Thick Envelope’ acceptance letter, and no greater relief to her parents when it is accompanied by a great financial aid or merit scholarship offer.  For others, the thrill lies in knowing that a sensible college funding plan was put in place well before the applications were even submitted.

Is college grossly overpriced on paper – absolutely!  Is it unfair that salaries have been stagnant for what seems like forever, or that so many of our investments are upside-down and the market is so volatile that one month can wipe out 10 years of college savings and your retirement? Yes it is!  But you have a choice.  You can rant after the fact or you can embrace the new reality and adapt.  There are tools and strategies (legal ones), and real world game changers at your disposal to level the playing field and make college as affordable and accessible to middle America today as it was to middle America in 1957.

If you’re local to South Florida and you have a high school student, I invite you to attend an upcoming class I’ll be hosting in Pinecrest (Miami) on paying for college in this economy.   One attendee told me coming to my class was ‘the best financial decision she ever made.’  Her daughter just graduated debt-free from Boston University.  Find out how she did it. Click here to learn more about tomorrow night’s class and to reserve your seat.

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