Two days ago I returned to Denver from having toured several selective midwestern private liberal arts colleges with one of my student clients. Each school is on the small side (averaging 2000 students or less), each has a reputation as a fine institution, with multiple factoids of distinction, such as freshman retention rates, graduation rates, percent employed after graduation, etc., and three were even profiled in that overly-touted 2006 tome Colleges That Change Lives.
Two of the four institutions charged students in the current (2010-11) first-year class just under $50,000 for tuition, room, board and fees, and two charged about $52,000. Are these charges worth it in terms of quality of experience and value of degree? Are they worth generating debt that will trail behind graduates and their families for years, perhaps decades to come? I think not, and I’m far from being the only college commentator who thinks so.
Many higher education journalists and bloggers observe that college costs have exceeded the inflationary spiral of health care costs in the U.S., and some forecast a course reversal that will rival what followed after the recent mortgage-bank crisis and consequent recession. So what will stop the craziness? Families that refuse the hype and demand accountability for fees, and students who agree to attend the best college that their parents (and they themselves) can reasonably afford.
I wholeheartedly agree with the advice given by one financial aid expert whom I recently heard at a public forum. He suggested that parents and students have an open talk about what is affordable well before a college list is assembled. Students can apply wherever they wish, within reason, but attendance is predicated on the total cost of attendance quoted by colleges after all discounting from grants, awards, and scholarships is reviewed.
The smart and talented student-client (a junior) who accompanied me on the trip hales from a regular middleclass Colorado family, and she has a sibling who will likely begin college during her third year of attendance. If costs continue to increase I am certain that she will be facing $60,000 in fees at the kind of college she hopes at attend, and her parents will have a dual burden for at least two years. I plan to advise her to apply widely, both in-state and out, and to seriously consider her best offers only. If this posture becomes the norm, colleges will need to take note, and adjust their pricing accordingly.