Integrating Financial Aid into the College Search
Our guest blogger today is Dr. Dean Skarlis, an independent college admissions counselor and college advisor. As such, Dr. Skarlis assists students in identifying and assisting students in gaining admission to appropriate colleges and universities.
$53,000 per year. That’s the current cost of attendance at George Washington University and the University of Chicago. This includes tuition, room and board, fees, books and “personal expenses,” whatever that means. It’s fair to say that the cost of higher education has grown at a ridiculously fast pace over the past 20 years. In fact, college costs have increased at twice the rate of inflation during that time period. And the pace of that growth will not slow down; it will only accelerate in years to come.
This begs the question: Why are colleges so expensive? There are numerous reasons, not the least of which is a highly inefficient bureaucracy. But another underlying explanation lies with students and parents, themselves. You might say, how can you blame students and parents for the high cost of college? I maintain that there are two valid reasons to indicate that college-going families must shoulder some of the responsibility.
First, students and parents have become consumers, and rightly so. With college costs increasing so dramatically, a vicious cycle has been promulgated. It goes something like this: Sticker prices increase along with our standard of living. As a result, families have come to expect more amenities for the big price tag. So colleges, not wanting to disappoint, have created pristinely gorgeous campuses, elaborate classroom facilities, trendy apartment style residence halls, coffee bars, and fitness centers. The schools have thus engaged in an arms race of sorts by building and maintaining these high end facilities because students expect it.. This obviously adds to a college’s fixed costs, which are passed along to the end consumer.
The second reason is a bit more indirect, but equally as important. The dirty little secret of higher education is that almost half of all college students do not graduate in 5 years. That means that about half of all undergraduates either fail to complete their degree at the college at which they began, or never get their degree at all. It’s easy to blame the colleges for this statistic, and most of them deserve responsibility, but the primary cause is that families have not made the right choice during the college selection process. This is because most families do not fully engage in the college search process. In my practice, I sometimes meet families who have not researched or visited any colleges until the middle of the senior year. This is far too late. What parents do not fully realize is that a college education is an investment. With the cost of a 4-year private degree eclipsing $200,000, it is imperative that families make systematic, well informed decisions with the ultimate goal of finding a college that’s the right fit, socially, academically, and financially. If students and parents do not search for schools that will suit them in all three of these categories, then they are much more likely to drop out, potentially wasting thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Aside from dropping out, one of the worst case scenarios is that a child picks a school to which his parents cannot afford to send him. I see this far too often, and it can be devastating for both student and parent. That’s why parents should be involved in the entire college search process. They should assess their affordability early in the process – 10th grade is not too early. They should ask: Will we qualify for need based aid? What about scholarships? And because different schools use different financial aid formulas, parents should understand how each college assesses their ability to pay. There are strategies that many educational consultants can employ that will help reduce a family’s Expected Family Contribution (EFC). This may help them qualify for need based aid. At the very least, parents should work with a college financial advisor to understand how much they can afford, and where the money will come from so they find a college that’s the right fit financially, as well as socially and academically.