Monthly Archives: January 2012

College presidents think you want high tuition. Really.

Blackburn College, Carlinville, IL

While I may have thought I wanted transparent presentations of the cost of college, the people who set the price — college presidents — are pretty clear that I want a high price and a healthy discount.

I encourage you to read the post from Daniel deVise in his WaPo College Inc. blog a couple of weeks ago, Is higher tuition what the public wants?

Colleges keep raising tuition [partly] so that they can offer ever-deeper discounts to prospective students. Offering the customer a 40 percent discount on an impossibly high list price accomplishes two things. It tells the customer the product has considerable worth and that it is being offered at great value.

“Perceived value is important,” said Miriam Pride, president of Blackburn College* in Illinois, speaking Friday at a meeting of the Council of Independent Colleges in Marco Island, Fla. “The dollar amount of our discounts is very valuable to our students and their families.”

This makes sense in the  predictably irrational world of goods priced at $19.99, which seems so much cheaper to the consumer than $20.00.

DeVise’s post is interesting for a number of points, including linking the rise of tuition-discounting to the introduction of college ranking publications and the different reactions to tuition cuts, which resulted in discount cuts — it worked for some colleges and not for others.

Meanwhile, in his State of the Union address, President Obama took on high tuition. The full text can be found here.

…Of course, it’s not enough for us to increase student aid. We can’t just keep subsidizing skyrocketing tuition; we’ll run out of money. States also need to do their part, by making higher education a higher priority in their budgets. And colleges and universities have to do their part by working to keep costs down.

Recently, I spoke with a group of college presidents who’ve done just that. Some schools redesign courses to help students finish more quickly. Some use better technology. The point is, it’s possible. So let me put colleges and universities on notice: If you can’t stop tuition from going up, the funding you get from taxpayers will go down.

Not surprisingly, a few college presidents say it’s not that simple. From College presidents wary of Obama’s cost-control tuition plan, here are responses from a couple:

The reality, said Illinois State’s Al Bowman, is that simple changes cannot easily overcome deficits at many public schools. He said he was happy to hear Obama, in a speech Friday at the University of Michigan, urge state-level support of public universities. But, Bowman said, given the decreases in state aid, tying federal support to tuition prices is a product of fuzzy math.

At the University of Washington, President Mike Young said Obama showed he did not understand how the budgets of public universities work.

Young said the total cost to educate college students in his state, which is paid for by both tuition and state government dollars, has gone down because of efficiencies on campus. While universities are tightening costs, the state is cutting their subsidies and authorizing tuition increases to make up for the loss.

Meanwhile, students could seize the opportunity to help rebuild a college with a tremendous history and attend Antioch College tuition free for four years. That’s a $106,000 offer. Read about Antioch’s story and offer here, courtesy of Lynn O’Shaughnessy.

Antioch’s application deadline for 2012-13 is February 15th, but the offer is good for students who enroll in the next three years as the college rebuilds.

* Blackburn College, which has its own great story as a college which keeps costs low by requiring work hours from every student, must be the first campus I ever visited. Graduates include my aunt, sister, cousin, niece, and niece’s husband. I’ve probably missed one or two more. To quote its website:

  • Blackburn is the least expensive, private four-year residential institution in the state of Illinois
  • Blackburn College is the only nationally recognized Work College whose Work Program is student-managed.
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Catch-22: how and when to complete the FAFSA and your tax returns.

English: Chinese .

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Most articles about how to complete the FAFSA will advise:  file early (as soon as possible after the form goes live on Jan 1 for the following school year) because the Federal funding at each college is first-come, first-serve.

The NYT‘s The Choice, in its introduction to Seeking Your Questions on the FAFSA, quotes Mark Kantrowitz:

It is best to file the Fafsa as soon as possible after Jan. 1.
Two states, Oregon and Connecticut, have deadlines for state grants in February, and a dozen have deadlines in March.
Six states provide the state grants on a first come first served basis until the money runs out. (The Fafsa lists them as “until funds are depleted.”)

A number of advisors write:  file your taxes first, and link to the FAFSA. The IRS link will complete relevant parts of the FAFSA with the necessary tax return information (such as Adjusted Gross Income). Plus the link verifies your FAFSA so it won’t require verification by the college financial aid office.

From Wise Choice, Simplifying the FAFSA: Use the IRS Retrieval Tool:

If you are a new or returning user, be sure to take a look at the IRS Retrieval Tool. Instead of having to pull all of your financial papers together again, the tool actually allows you to pull information directly from the IRS and your tax forms and imports them into the FAFSA form. This not only reduces the headache of basically preparing another return, but ensures more accurate reporting from year to year, as well.

Here, of course, is the catch:  most of the tax-related information required for your tax return will not arrive in your mailbox until February.

Mark Kantrowitz, quoted in the Choice link above, provides a complete column answering this question, “How do I file the FAFSA in January when tax returns can’t be filed that early?

Do not wait until you have filed your federal income tax returns to submit the FAFSA. Instead, use estimated numbers to complete the FAFSA. You will have an opportunity to correct any errors later and will be required to update the application after your taxes are filed. Be sure to check the “will file” box. The US Department of Education will send an email reminder in April to update the FAFSA information after your federal income tax returns have been filed.

For more Q&A on the FAFSA, dive into the full series of seven Choice columns linked here.

Following Kantro’s advice, we’re using non-official financial information to get an early draft of our return for the numbers we need for the FAFSA. Once we’ve received the official 1099s, et. al., we’ll complete the return and update the FAFSA as needed.

If you’ve not yet started, now’s the time. Get your PINs first; one each for the student and for the parent, these act as electronic signatures for the form. If you file online — as all advisors recommend — colleges will receive the processed form within days.

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Another college admissions stage completed: Pete has options


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On a grey, chilly, and damp January day, the end of another college admissions stage snuck up on us.

We were, admittedly (sorry), distracted:  Friday brought the last day of midterms and the end of first semester; Mod Squad Pete ran off to an indoor track meet; Mod Squad Julie attended a basketball team dinner, then we went to her game;  Mod Squad Linc (rarely mentioned here, but a rather busy 7th grader) went to a middle school games night; and our region received our first bit of winter weather in the form of snow and freezing rain.

At random moments during the day, though, at least three of us were aware that results from the last of Pete’s three early admissions applications would be made available late in the day, a bit more than a month after the first two.

Pete arrived home after 10:30, having stepped briefly into school from the team bus to use wifi to check his status:  “Oh, by the way, I got in.”

He had a three month wait after submitting two applications on October 15th and a third a couple of weeks later. Of the three schools he selected for early admissions, he’d chosen 1) a very selective, 2) a good fit,  and 3) a safety. While we’ve read about the pitfalls of misreading fit, in Pete’s case the responses followed accordingly, with a deferral and two acceptances.

The next stage — regular admissions — already began in December when Pete completed four more applications; those results come due in the spring.

What say you, Pete? “Yeah, that feels good… oh, you remember about the rave tomorrow night?”

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What does college cost? How does financial aid work?

There are a couple of questions that might seem to be easily answered. Not. So. I continue to be amazed at how complicated the answers are.

Fortunately, given the Net Price Calculators, more transparency has been shed on the net price for colleges. They’re not perfect, nor universally clear, but they are better than what was available before and I hope they continue to improve with use and feedback.

The calculators have the potential to help high school students and parents understand the difference between a college’s sticker — or advertised — price and its net price — after grants, work-study, and the Expected Family Contribution have been factored in.

A couple of recent posts helped to point out background information on both of these questions.

First from Suzanne Shaffer at Parents Countdown to College Coach, here’s advice to ignore the sticker price and an infographic for explanation: see College Sticker Price. I’m including a screenshot of a portion of the infographic; click the link to see the full image.

via Parents Countdown to College Coach

Next, from Murray Miller at Student Advisor, 7 Surprising Financial Aid Facts That Could Save You Thousands. I’m listing the facts below; click on the link for more information on each point.

  1. Some colleges have more to give than others.
  2. High sticker price colleges can cost less than “cheaper” state schools.
  3. “Forgotten middle class” families receive generous grants, scholarships and other financial aid.
  4. Grades have little to do with financial aid awards.
  5. Two families can have the same amount saved — but one will receive far more financial aid because of where they saved.
  6. Graduation rates differ — more than you realize.
  7. The financial aid office may not be your best resource…

Finally, I thought I would offer some of the clearest advice I’ve seen. It was a newspaper article tweeted by @Scorebusters near the end of the year, titled “Three tips to reduce the cost of college.” Unfortunately the article has disappeared behind a paywall. Here are the tips:

  1. Focus on academics
  2. Maximize aid
  3. Finish on time

Right. There you go, Pete:  a new family mantra.

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The Sophomore Search for College [or… hiding from the emails]

January 2012. Calendar by Mod Squad Julie.

Mark the day:  on January 18th the first college emails arrived to invite Mod Squad Julie to join their class of 2020.

No, you know what I mean:  to invite M.S. Julie to spend $50 to $100 and jump through a long series of hoops to apply to join their class of 2020.

By the end of the day she had received eleven emails.

Two years ago, when Mod Squad Pete received his first emails, he was excited and intrigued. And, probably, so were his parents (although I also remember a certain amount of trepidation on my part).

Having seen the glut of emails he received and the stacks and stacks of promotional print materials that stuffed our mailbox (most of them strikingly similar to each other), Julie’s response was one of dread.

Granted, she has also seen the entire experience at close hand:

  • she visited a number of colleges with Pete;
  • last spring she attended a “Pathways to College” event at the University of Virginia with panels on essays, current student experiences, etc.;
  • she has seen the endless lists of tasks related to essays, recommendations, tracking extra-curriculars, and completing applications;
  • she has heard countless parent-student conferences (I’d call them chats, but some of these involved markers and easel paper) about plans, questions, goals, and more;
  • and, truth be told, she had a front row seat for the emotional roller-coaster the multiple deadlines brought on.

As any parent or teacher knows, every student, every child is different. The path Julie chooses for her college search will be different from Pete’s for a couple of very big reasons:  1) She has been an up-close observer of his search, and 2) she is a different student / teen with different interests, goals, and strengths.

Last night, I had a similar attitude to Julie’s:  Oh, no, not that already. In the clear light of the morning, however, I’m ready to buy my ticket and get back on the roller-coaster. I can’t wait to see where her search takes us.

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How to look at the cost of college… in Virginia and 49 other states.

While many high school seniors (and their parents) are now in the wait-and-see period of college applications, juniors and sophomores (and their parents) are somewhere in the extended continuum of figuring out which colleges to put on their long lists. Given the ever-increasing amount of funds required for college, many families put the Cost of Attendance high on their list of criteria.

This recent article in our local paper covered some important points to consider: That college may not be out of your range after all. Written by Jonathan West, director of the College Funding Group, LLC out of Richmond, VA, the article presents Mr. West’s data from running Net Price Calculators for public and private colleges in Virginia. He emphasizes the need to determine a college’s real (or net) price and offers these important points:

  1. “Ignore the sticker prices. Twenty-one out of 25 schools offered some discount.”
  2. “Private colleges are not as expensive as you might think.” Net prices brought the public-private cost difference down to $2500.
  3. “Merit aid is available for families with higher incomes, too.”
  4. “Your teen does not need to be at the head of her class to get merit aid.”

Here’s the net-net:

What are the most expensive and least expensive colleges in Virginia? The answers are Washington and Lee and Washington and Lee.

The print version of the article included Mr. West’s data, including assumptions used in the calculators. Since the online version doesn’t, here’s a link to his website, which provides it in pdf form. Here’s a screenshot of the figures:

Via Click to enlarge.

Have you run any Net Price Cacluators? If the cost of college is high on the list of college criteria, we need to do our homework to make sure we’re considering the college net cost instead of the sticker price.

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Got Scholarships? Looking for free money.

Seal of the United States Internal Revenue Ser...

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Now we start dual-processing:  figuring out how to apply for scholarships and how to complete the FAFSA (before or after doing taxes, linking or not to the IRS, absolutely completing it ASAP). Here’s how one conversation went at our house…

SCENE:  early morning, minivan enroute to high school with PARENT, MOD SQUAD PETE, and MOD SQUAD JULIE

MOOD:  Didn’t I already say it was early morning with a Mom and two teens? What more do you need to know?

MOM:  So after last night’s financial aid program, I’m more serious than before about you working on lots of scholarship applications.

M S PETE:  Really. Oh, joy. [Could have been worse: “I see” is a step below this. “Hmm” is a worse reaction. ”   ” is the worst.]

MOM:  Yep. I’m sure you know what Ms. Wright says about who gets scholarships.

PETE:  Umm, those who apply?

MOM:  Ha! You do know.

PETE:  Right, I’m applying to two already.

MOM:  Yes, well, you’ll need to apply to more; you can look at fastweb and cappex, and do your own search. There are loads out there to look at.

M S JULIE: [Eating] There’s a scholarship sticker on my clementine.


MOM & PETE:  What?

JULIE:  [laughing] Really.

PETE:  I can hear the announcement:  And we’d like to congratulate Mod Squad Pete on his $500 scholarship from CutiesKids.

As it turns out, offers a $150,000 scholarship as a contest prize to parents sending in cute videos of their very young children — sort of a 21st century Funniest Home Videos.

Here’s information from The Scholarship Coach at USNews&WorldReport on how to Get Organized for College Scholarship Application Season. Many more details at the link, here’s the outline.

1. Search for scholarships in a variety of places

2. Prepare early

3. Be thorough in your application process—and don’t rush!

Do me a favor:  don’t remind Pete there will be essays involved.

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