College Admissions

Bringing Down the Cost of College – Part 1

The father of one of my students was recently laid off after more than 30 years working for the same company. In this time of economic uncertainty, even a family that has been solidly upper middle class for decades can suffer a severe financial blow. That’s why preparing a college list that includes “highly likely,” “50/50”and “reach” schools is not enough. Students need to think beyond their chances of admission and include at least one financial safety school that the family can comfortably afford. The thrill of being accepted will quickly fade if attending that college means having to take out big loans.


The Ivies and other elite schools provide generous financial aid to students from low and middle income households, so that students attending these colleges should not graduate with huge debt. But most colleges don’t have the financial resources to offer that kind of aid, and families need to start thinking early about what they will pay for college.


Parents are often surprised, and not in a good way, when they learn their Estimated Family Contribution (EFC), which is the amount of money they are expected to pay toward their child’s education. The number, which is based on information about income and assets provided in the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), is usually higher than expected. Sometimes the government determines that the family can pay the full cost of college, so there will be no need-based aid available. Rather than waiting until January, when you can complete the FAFSA, get an early estimate now at while there is still time to revise your senior’s college list.


But even if you don’t qualify for need-based aid, there are ways to bring down the cost of college.  The most economical approach is to start at community college and then transfer to a four year college.  You end up with the same degree as someone starting at the four year school, for much less money.  Of course for the first two years you sacrifice the traditional college experience by living at home and attending community college.


Even if you want to go straight into a four year college after high school, you might consider taking community college courses before you graduate from high school. Students who have taken AP or community college classes while in high school may accumulate enough credits to graduate from college a semester or year early, saving thousands of dollars in tuition.


Another relatively low cost route is choosing a local public college or university.  In-state tuition is lower than private college tuition and usually lower than paying out of state tuition at a public university in another state.  


For students who are determined to go out of state, some public colleges offer reasonable tuition for nonresident students. While University of Michigan charges $35,000 tuition (and a couple thousand dollars more for juniors and seniors), highly regarded University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, which also offers strong academics, big sports and a great college town, is about $22,000 a year for out of state students. Schools that are not as selective include Indiana University, a popular choice for out of state students, with tuition close to $24,000 a year. You can get an even better deal at the University of Kansas, where tuition is under $20,000 for nonresidents, and the rate is fixed for four years. For the “B” student who wants a nice college town, big sports and school spirit, KU could be a great choice. If you want to wear shorts to class in January, you will find tuition is less than $23,000 a year at University of Arizona and under $20,000 at Arizona State University.


But you have to look beyond tuition in determining the cost of a college education. Budget cuts in states hit especially hard by the recession have been severe. Students attending public universities in California and Florida and other struggling states may find bigger classes, fewer courses offered, longer waits for advising appointments, and difficulty getting into classes. If it takes five years to graduate, the cost of a degree is higher than you might think, especially when you consider the lost wages a student could be earning during that fifth year.


Students who have clear educational/career goals can save money and time in a combined degree program. Some schools offer accelerated BA/MD programs, where students begin medical school after three years of undergraduate work.  Aspiring attorneys might be interested in the six year BA/JD programs offered by a number of schools, including Rutgers and George Washington University.


But even if you’re not headed for medical or law school, there are ways to lower the cost of an advanced degree. Clark University offers a free fifth year, so students can earn a Master’s degree without having to pay more tuition. Wesleyan’s B.A./M.A. Program in the Sciences also includes a tuition free fifth year for students who want an intensive research experience. Other colleges have programs that allow students to apply some undergraduate work toward a Master’s degree, so that even though they have to pay a fifth year of tuition, they graduate with both Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in less time than it would typically take to earn these degrees separately.


These are just a few ways to bring down the cost of college.  More to come next week.