Just how much are parents expected to pay to send students to college? Whenever we asked that question, the only answer we could get, understandably, was “it depends.” There are so many variables that go into each college’s financial aid funding formula — coming up with an easy answer isn’t possible.
But we wanted to test the system. Every college is now required to have an estimated net price calculator somewhere on its website. We created a test family and ran it through the cost calculator for Lewis & Clark College and the University of Oregon.
Our family’s details: The parents in this family made $75,000 a year, owned their own home, and had $6,000 in savings outside of retirement.
They had one child, who had a 3.85 GPA and high SAT scores.
Each college asked different questions, so undoubtedly each is considering different factors.
Our estimated offers: Lewis & Clark College is a private school in Portland with an estimated cost of attendance of $55,666 per year. The college estimated giving the student in our test family $22,800 a year in grants, $7,000 in loans and $2,500 in work study. That left $23,366 in remaining costs, to be paid for by parents or the student.
At the UO, the estimated cost of attendance was $27,648 per year. The university estimated offering $5,000 in grants, $3,500 in subsidized loans and $2,000 in subsidized loans. The estimate suggested the remaining $17,148 could be covered in a parent loan.
Bottom line: Lewis & Clark College would cost about $6,000 more a year for our test family.
How students get into college and how families pay for college has changed dramatically in the past few decades.
Parents who went to college can’t rely on their own experiences to guide their children. Today the process is far more competitive and costs are exponentially higher.
In order to help families navigate this tricky landscape, we sought advice from two local experts: Carolyn Platt, an independent college consultant, and Gary Whitley, a longtime counselor at Bend High School.
Together they offered tips and insights to help dispel common misconceptions:
• Prepare for competition. “Getting into college is just incredibly difficult compared to where it was eight to 10 years ago,” said Platt. This is in part due to demographics. There are more kids who want to attend college (yet there aren’t any new Stanfords being built). Platt says Harvard College accepted about 6 percent of its application pool last year. “You could walk on water and still not make it in,” said Platt. She says while many students in Central Oregon will attend schools locally or within the state, many more are beginning to search nationally.
• Focus on depth, not breadth. In the past, Platt says many students would present colleges with a portfolio filled with extracurricular activities. Today, she says, schools “are looking at commitment, passion and development in a few key areas.”
• Broaden the college search. Platt says some people get fixated on a particular school — whether it’s Princeton or the University of Oregon.
She encourages students and parents to be broad in their college searches.
• Focus on fit. Rather than think about a school’s reputation or even the majors it offers, Whitley encourages families to think about a school’s “fit” for a student. Does the student like big or small classes? What kind of culture would he or she enjoy? Would the student like a religious school? Think about the competitiveness of the academics. Consider the weather. Above all, Whitley suggests that families visit the campuses.
• Don’t let cost affect where students apply. Many private schools with high tuition also have the ability to offer large financial aid packages. In some cases the cost of attending an expensive private school can be the same or even less than attending a public university due to the financial aid offers. “Don’t rule out any school you’re applying to (based on money,)” said Whitley.
• Compare financial aid packages evenly. Each college will present its financial aid package to an accepted student in a different form. When comparing offers, families should make sure to factor in those differences. For instance, some schools include transportation costs in their overall cost analyses, whereas others do not.
• Know the financial aid parts. Financial aid offers are broken down into parts. The most desirable are grants or scholarships, which do not need to be repaid. Work study is available for students to earn a wage while working on campus, but the funds are paid directly to students and do not offset the overall cost of tuition (unless the student puts the money toward that cost). Subsidized student loans are the most attractive loans, as they do not begin accruing interest until after a student has graduated, unlike unsubsidized loans. There are also many parent loans available, which parents must begin repaying immediately. Families should also realize that they do not need to accept every element of a financial aid package.
• Learn about available scholarships. Whitley found that many colleges will break down what academic qualifications a student needs to obtain specific grants. Many schools have charts families can refer to, so students can see what certain GPAs and test scores will earn them. This kind of information can be helpful when applying to schools.
• Require students to contribute. Platt has found the students who contribute something to their college costs — either tuition funds or pocket money — tend to do better. “I think it is a wonderful message and investment for students to supply some of the cost for attending. It really commits them,” said Platt. “They tend to be a bit more serious in their education because they’ve had to work for it a bit more.”
• Use the offers to your advantage. Students can use a financial aid offer from one college to try to increase an offer from another college. Platt says — if the colleges are comparable — families can approach one college with the offer from another school and ask the first college to try to match it. “Ninety percent of the time an adjustment is made,” said Platt (although the school may not fully match the other offer.)
• Prepare for high costs. Even with grants and subsidized loans factored in, the cost of college can be incredibly high. Colleges will determine an expected parental contribution, based on the parent’s Free Application for Federal Student Aid as well as some other requested information. Each college’s precise number may be different, but in general families can count on it being high. “It’s always higher than parents expect,” said Whitley.
• No full rides. Even students with stellar academic profiles will likely have to pay something for college. “It’s unusual for someone to get a full-ride scholarship,” said Whitley, for academics.
• Get an estimated cost. All colleges are required to have a cost estimator on their websites. Families can use this to plug in financial data as well as information about a student’s achievements. The site will then offer an estimated net price calculator. While these are estimates, they are also extremely helpful (see “Test case”).
• Lack of savings. Haven’t saved up anything to help pay for college? You are far from alone. In fact Whitley and Platt say most parents they talk with locally have not saved anything for college.
• Be forthcoming about help. Whitley strongly encourages parents to talk to students well in advance about how much financial help they can expect. Tell students, this is how much we can afford. “Tell them first,” said Whitley. If parents wait until the financial aid packages arrive, students are much more likely to be disappointed.
• Talk about debt. Many students are taking on tens of thousands of dollars in student loans. Whitley says parents should talk to students about some of the risks of taking on too much debt; but he also thinks “it’s realistic for students who go to college to incur some debt.” Sit down and figure out what level of debt students and parents are comfortable with.
• Your need matters. A few colleges offer what’s called need-blind admissions. This means schools evaluate applications based on their merits alone, without factoring in families’ needs. But Platt says these schools are becoming rare. More colleges are taking into account a family’s ability to pay when granting admission — this means students from families who haven’t saved are put at a disadvantage when it comes to admissions.
• Consider a school’s endowment. Whitley pointed out that colleges with large endowments are typically able to offer more in financial aid. Families can research endowments through the National Association of College and University Business Officers. It can reveal all sorts of insights, and let families know which colleges have deep pockets. For instance Rice University has an endowment larger than Dartmouth College, and Southern Methodist University’s endowment is just as big as that of Georgetown.
• Alert colleges to outside aid (but later). Students are required to let colleges know about any outside scholarships they received (from a parent’s workplace or local fraternal organization, for instance). But Platt encourages families to hold back this information until after a student has received the financial aid package from a college.
• Consider a gap year. Not every student is ready to go to college right after high school. Platt encourages families to consider a student’s maturity. But if a student isn’t ready for college, Platt says, they should “not just be living at home and not doing anything.” There are many programs and internships that focus on gap years, or students can work and save money. Whitley thinks parents should consider whether the student can get homework done on time without reminders and, in general, whether the student can manage his or her own life.
• Look at the retention rate. This is something not many people talk about, but some students who go off to college end up coming right back home. Some schools are better at retaining students than others. Families may want to consider a college’s retention rate when thinking about where a student may ultimately end up, especially for those students who may be borderline in terms of college readiness.
• Major not important. Both Platt and Whitley said families should not focus too much on a student’s expected major when picking out a college. Many students change their minds. Further, Platt says not knowing what you want to study should not be a reason to take a gap year.
On a side note, Whitley recommends any parent going through the college admittance process with a student should read “Crazy U” by Andrew Ferguson.
— Reporter: 541-617-7860, firstname.lastname@example.org