He knew we’d spent the last 15 months visiting colleges, walking the campuses of schools from Charleston, S.C., to Vancouver, B.C., listening to boasts about Quidditch teams, artisanal cheese clubs and professors who find students that sweet summer job with barely a week’s notice.
And the environs were commonly “epic,” in the current parlance. Imagine gorgeous high-tech classrooms, freshman dorm suites with bathrooms shared by only four students, and meal plans valid at Starbucks and Chipotle. Sure, there was the rare structure that looked out of 1970s Romania and the occasional cinder-block classroom, but things have gone upscale since I went to college.
That couldn’t have been cheap.
My son — I’ll call him “H” — is applying to three times as many schools as his dad or mom did, because the Common App makes it easy and because most colleges offer limited clarity on what your final, actual cost will be (except for the one school candid enough to codify the percentage of my net worth it expected me to disgorge). The more applications sent, we figured, the better the chance one would elicit an offer we couldn’t refuse.
Feb. 1 is the typical end of the U.S. university application window. It’s over now for us. (We were still receiving direct-mail solicitations three days prior.)
College search is fascinating for what you glean about the big, opaque, competitive business that is nonprofit academia. I’ve tried to learn as much as I could because I felt knowledge was power — the alternative to succumbing to brick-and-ivy fantasies and marketing gamesmanship.
The first truism about college is that no one pays full price; the high-tuition, high-aid model of contemporary higher ed guarantees everyone a discount. As best I can determine, about a third of folks pay rack rate. And if your kid is headed to a private college, odds are four years of it will run as much as $300,000 at current rates of academic inflation. It’s quite amazing, in fact, how little difference there is in list price among the so-so, good, better and best private colleges. When all the baubles in the catalog cost the same, savvy shopping becomes difficult. Which is perhaps as they like it.
I spent most of last summer researching a comprehensive report about the University of Minnesota’s undergraduate programs (http://tinyurl.com/z84zzlu). Despite complaints that the U doesn’t price resident tuition fairly, my analysis is that in-state rates at public institutions like the U or the University of Wisconsin-Madison are the only consistent value in higher ed. Minnesota costs a bit under $25,000 per year — room, board and tuition.
But if your kid wants out of the Miracle Whip belt, as mine does, it is a tough sell. And we felt we owed H a measure of self-determination. He’s been an exemplary student at Southwest High in Minneapolis, with a near-perfect GPA, while taking rigorous IB and AP classes. He’s kept up a busy schedule of sports and academic extracurriculars, not to mention several girlfriends.
When H was born in 1998, I was convinced that skyrocketing inflation in higher ed was unsustainable — that in the ensuing 18 years, fundamental reform would change how or what Americans paid for college. Didn’t happen. Since 2001, our “529” savings plans have endured two once-in-a-generation market crashes. (Many suggest a third is around the corner.) And I should note that we were unwilling to save ourselves into an ascetic lifestyle.
We weren’t eager to add insult to injury by spending $4,000 on a college counselor — but given the public schools’ slim resources and fears that the college search/application process would require hours of our day that did not exist, we signed up. The counselor gave us a sage piece of advice: If you want to pay less than full price, your kid needs to be somebody a school really wants — up in the rarefied air of its application pool. Which meant aiming lower than the “best” possible school your teen might qualify to attend.
Next came a couple grand on ACT tutoring. H’s two-digit score was exceptionally important to our quest to keep the cost of college down, because average ACT (or SAT) scores define a school’s market position. A better ACT translates directly to merit aid.
Colleges insist that ACT and SAT scores are the least valuable pieces of information about a student, but that doesn’t stop them from pandering to them. H and his cousin unknowingly applied “early action” to the same university. His cousin had a modestly lower GPA, but a modestly higher ACT, which translated to a $5,000 better aid award than H received.
Now, “merit aid” is a dirty phrase in some academic quarters, where it is seen as a zero-sum competition siphoning dollars from impoverished students to attract teens who burnish schools’ rankings.
The University of Wisconsin, tired of losing National Merit Scholars and other academically elite students to competing state universities, has decided to double down on its merit aid game. Noted its chancellor, Rebecca Blank, in a December article in Inside Higher Ed: “That’s a real waste of where we should be spending our money … [but] I have a lot of top [Wisconsin] students who get recruited [by] Iowa and Indiana and Illinois and Minnesota. … We’re a better school than them.”
The article cited higher ed consultant Kevin Crockett, who defended merit aid, noting that college “sticker prices have outpaced family income.” The article quoted a College Board report suggesting that resident tuition and fees at Midwestern public universities had grown 24 percent faster than inflation in the last decade. Crockett suggests that merit aid is a functional way of “trying to better align what families are able to pay with what schools are charging.”
Once-affordable state universities have seen the most tuition inflation since the recession, as strapped legislatures balanced their budgets on their university systems. Nonresident tuition is often as high at public universities as at private ones in states like Colorado, Washington, Oregon and California.
The Ivy Leagues don’t play in merit aid. Northfield’s Carleton College, the closest Minnesota has, largely abstains as well. But nearby St. Olaf, St. Paul’s Macalester College and the University of St. Thomas employ it comprehensively in hopes of attracting academically elite students lacking an elite budget. But this is not an easy trade-off for many families. Carleton is a prestige brand. Everything else is not Carleton. Or are they?
More and more we’re told that it’s not as important where you go to college, but that you go to college. That paying more for a top brand delivers little in enhanced outcomes. But after years of living with the idea that a certain strata of education is better, there remains a temptation to pay more for it.
And therein lies the rub. At most private colleges, $100,000 pretax family income is all it takes to be disqualified for need-based aid. I’d never claim my household is needy. But I’d assert that allocating a million dollars to put my two kids through college and grad school jeopardizes our family’s financial security and our ability to endure things like illness and job loss, which afflict all of us eventually. The salves government and academia offer are stock-market 529 plans and debt that can’t be discharged in bankruptcy.
I’ve asked peers in similar two-income families how they are financing college. Some have uber-saved — not stepping foot in a foreign country, eating in a steakhouse or remodeling a bathroom since their kids were born. Others are relying on grandparent generosity or inheritances. A few work small side jobs, funneling the income to college funds. Many allocate the equivalent of the U’s tuition and require their kids to borrow the difference.
We gave that some thought, but college debt unnerves us. My wife and I were paying it off deep into our 40s. Interest rates are often usurious. It depresses grads’ ability to function in the real economy. And it is often packaged by colleges and universities as if it is aid: “Your out-of-pocket cost is $0,” they say in marketing missives.
But if colleges want to continue to produce English and classics and philosophy majors, they can’t be sending them into marginal job markets with $100,000-plus in loans.
I’d like to think I am not demonizing higher ed when I say its cost is careening out of control. Rampant inflation in the sector makes the calculus complicated for even modestly affluent Americans like me. I don’t have a solution — beyond taking Starbucks off the meal plan. Higher ed is just another American institution (health care, retirement, public safety) in need of the kind of fundamental reform that we just don’t do in America anymore. Letting things slide has become a national hallmark.
Thus, in 2016, if you want to provide your kid with options both geographic and academic, preparing for college includes figuring out how to play the game as well as savvy admissions officers. One private-college VP of admissions told us, “Once we know your ZIP code, we know everything about you, including how much it will take to get you to enroll — and we don’t offer a penny more.”
The gauzy 1950s narrative of tweedy professors who invite their charges home on cold winter nights for bowls of chili and conversation about big ideas may still exist, but it’s been augmented by another one — about an essential but occasionally cynical institution — one I decided we’d best approach as skeptical consumers.
It was a lot of effort, and we’re not out of the woods yet. But I think we may just end up with that $300,000 education closer to a Dinkytown price.
Adam Platt is executive editor of Twin Cities Business.