The cost of college is different for almost everyone, just like an airline ticket.
But while plane ticket varies depending on career, date of purchase, and fate, the cost of college depends on the reported family income, resources, the grade that a high school student received, the type of institution they want to attend, and proficiency in a complex application process.
Although about 85 percent of freshmen at a four-year boarding college receive some form of financial support, families are frightened by the price of stickers, according to Philip Levine, an economist who studies the problem. The value of that sticker is a clear number, while the process of bringing that number down – through financial aid or other means – is far from complicated and transparent.
“If people think college costs a lot more than that, it’s bad for access,” Levine said. “If you can’t afford it, you can’t go. But if you think you can’t afford it, you won’t go. “
Levine and other college access experts are now on a mission to smooth the road to college – and ultimately more affordable – especially for families who have traditionally struggled to access higher education. In addition to providing more financial support for low-income students, they have decided to go to college for better communication with families earlier and for better training for high school level counselors who are trying to help them.
“Social mobility, I think, is a result that, regardless of your political views, is something you can get behind,” said Levine, a professor at Wellesley College. “College is a great way to promote social mobility. So, the amount of levers we have that we can pull that can help us achieve that goal, we think we should. “
Levin and three other experts discussed these “levers” in a Brookings Institution webinar last week, in Levin’s new book, “A Problem of Fit: How the Complexity of College Pricing Hearts Students – and Universities.” Everyone agrees that many families struggle to get the information and guidance they need to make college choices.
For example, the cost of a college sticker will not be a real expense for most people, as federal, state, or institutional financial support can significantly reduce that cost. To get a more accurate estimate of what the college will cost, Levin advised families to use a net-cost calculator, which includes how much financial help can be obtained. Colleges should have these on their websites; The US Department of Education has one, and many others have popped up online, one of which was created by Levin himself.
Related: Will making FAFSA more ‘fun’ help students get Pell grants in their pockets?
And while filling out a free application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA, is an important step, Kim Cook, CEO of the National College Attenuation Network, says families shouldn’t stop there. He said families should apply for things like state financial aid or local scholarships and ask colleges for institutional support.
Also, when a student receives a letter of acceptance and a financial aid reward package and a bill arrives, a student may feel overwhelmed by the financial reality and may reconsider going to college. If that happens, Cook said, families should call the college’s financial aid office. Often families are unaware that there are funding plans, work-study programs, or other options that can make financing in college more viable.
Lindsay Page, an associate professor of education policy at Brown University, said college counselors have argued for investment so they can provide better advice and assistance in the incredibly complex process of applying to college.
“College is a great way to promote social mobility. So, the amount of levers we have that we can pull that can help us achieve that goal, we think we should. “
Philip Levine, Professor of Economics, Wellesley College
Students from high-income families are more likely to have parents or family members who have navigated the systems themselves and can often pay college instructors to help them through the process. But first-generation students and students from low-income families may only have access to school guidelines, and school counselors may not be experts on what has become an increasingly complex process. Page said college counselors in public schools need better training to help students make the best choices, and schools should invest in more counselors.
College financial aid officers can also help, providing more information to the family soon. But Joy St. John, Wellesley’s director of admissions and financial aid, said there was a competitive pressure from financial aid officials that could make initial and clear communication difficult.
St. John, who will soon join Harvard as director of admissions, has been working in this field for almost 25 years. He says financial aid officers often have to distribute money in the most equitable way to institutional goals (such as enrolling students from different backgrounds) – all while within the college’s volatile budget.
“All of these things can make a relief office very reluctant to promise any amount of financial assistance before applying for full financial assistance in front of them,” St. John said.
Nevertheless, he said, tides could change as students and parents demand more transparency in the financial aid process “so that they can create a college listing in a more strategic and more responsible way.”
Related: The professor hopes that his quick calculator will show low-income students that they can afford an elective college.
While college usually costs lower-income families much less than advertising, it’s often still very expensive, Levin said. Students who can’t afford it either cancel themselves, or get fired with a loan that could have long-term consequences.
Instead of advocating for a free college – a proposed solution that he said would not solve the problem on a large scale – Levin agrees with a host of other college access advocates that the best bet is to provide more support to low-income students.
Students from low-income families are eligible for federal pay grants for up to six years to help pay for college expenses. Levin and others suggest doubling the maximum number of students each year; At the moment it’s $ 6,495, which covers about 25 percent of tuition for a public, four-year college. Cook said doubling it would bring it closer to its original goal of covering 75 percent tuition.
Congress recently approved a $ 400 increase in the highest pay grant, and President Joe Biden has proposed a $ 2,175 increase, although it is unclear whether Congress will approve it. If the full proposed amount is approved, it would be a major step towards Biden’s goal of doubling the Pail Grant by 2029.
Experts say there may be ways to improve college access and capacity beyond paying directly to tuition bills, including providing more social support for low-income families before their children reach college age.
“If we really want to understand how to create better college opportunities for students, we need to see what happens before their lives,” said Sandy Baum, a senior fellow at the Urban Institute and an expert in the field. Brookings Webinar.
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