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College Is Expensive: The Soapbox

The sticker shock of attending a four-year college can be enough to make many prematurely draw a conclusion that financially supporting a child or loved one is impossible.

The cost of attendance for just one year can be enough to make you reach for the Alka-Seltzer.  The tuition bills themselves are scary, now tack on room and board, textbooks, lab fees, student activity fees, more food (ramen noodles anyone?), transportation…the list goes on.

According to Forbes, “Tuition inflation has risen at a faster rate than the cost of medical services, child care, and housing” and “the net price of public four-year colleges has more than doubled since the turn of the century.”

This trend is at least partially responsible for families taking on more student loans, helping to contribute toward our current student debt crisis.

There is a little bit of good news: college costs for 2021 increased at a rate lower than general inflation for the first time in a very, VERY long while. This was largely the result of the federal government trying to help institutions combat the repercussions of the pandemic. The real question: will rates start climbing again once we return to some semblance of normal life?

Why Is College So Expensive?

There is no definitive explanation for college becoming so expensive—in fact, economists and politicians have argued about this for a long time—but experts posit that several factors have played a part.

These factors include a decrease in state funding, the rise of college rankings, a shift from focusing on academics to amenities, massive administrative bloat, and the wide availability of student loans.

Let’s home in on one of these factors that do not receive enough attention: the collective obsession with college rankings.

Pundits have argued that these rankings have encouraged universities to spend ridiculous amounts of money in a massive arms race to entice prospective buyers. Not only that, they have the potential to mislead consumers.

Parents and students are desperate to figure out if their investment will pay off and fall victim to “prestige” in the process. Thus, U.S. News and other ranking publications wield incredible power over the perception of quality and institutional clout.

Unfortunately, these college rankings are often very limited in scope and measure an arbitrary list of attributes that do not necessarily reflect a student’s needs or budget.

The president of Princeton, Christopher L. Eisgruber, illuminated this rankings problem in an op-ed for The Washington Post, suggesting that we need something more like a Consumer Reports Scorecard for each school that provides much more specific criteria—filtered for each student’s background—which would help each family determine which school is the right fit and not which school is “best.”

In the meantime, parents and students need to understand the flaws in the rankings and do their own research.

Honestly, we could talk about the origination of rising college costs all day, but the simplest way to conclude is this: colleges charge so much because they CAN. However, this isn’t necessarily the biggest problem.

The Bigger Problem: College Costs Are Opaque

Can you imagine making a major purchase – a car, a house, even a laptop without doing comparison shopping?  And now try to imagine trying to purchase the right product for you and not having a good idea of what you will pay.

Many colleges are NOT transparent about their true prices, often making it extremely challenging to know what colleges are in your price range. The good news is that you will probably not pay the college sticker price.

In fact, 89% of students do not pay sticker price for college

A decent analogy for paying for college is buying an airline ticket. But, imagine that the airline can discount your cost based on your income/assets and academic transcript, as well as a variety of factors outside of your control. And to complicate things even further: many families will arrive at the airport, so to speak, still not sure what they will pay for the plane ticket.

Houston, we have a problem, and most American families are feeling the financial stress.

The Action: What Can You Do to Reduce College Costs?

Step One: Submit Financial Aid Applications

Whether you believe your family will qualify for financial aid or not, fill out the FAFSA. It alerts the financial aid office that you are available for any opportunities for assistance and makes you eligible for low-interest federal loans. Some schools and private organizations also require the FAFSA to determine merit aid. If the school requires the CSS Profile, fill that out as well.

The aforementioned statistic, that a whopping 89% of students do not pay sticker price for college, should be a motivator to compete for your student.  Most do not know that you can also appeal your initial financial award letter.

Step Two: Hunt for Merit Aid

Qualifying for institutional merit aid—merit aid given by the colleges themselves—can drastically reduce costs.

There are two major types of institutional merit aid: automatic and competitive. If the applicant falls into a specific academic tier or brings something unique that rounds out the class, certain schools will award merit aid automatically. Automatic merit aid is sometimes referred to as tuition discounting.

Competitive merit aid requires an additional application and opportunities can be found on each college’s website. A few schools even allow you to stack automatic and competitive scholarships!

The safest bet for landing merit aid? Apply to institutions where your student’s GPA and test scores fall in the top 25% of the newly admitted class. Don’t fret if your child is not a perfect student; many schools award merit aid for non-academic reasons like athletics, music, theater, art, community service, leadership, and other extracurriculars.

Important Note: Many ultra-selective schools either do not give merit aid or only give it to a select few students. It is crucial to perform your due diligence. Examine each school’s website for merit aid info and/or use The College Board website to search by school, then click on the “costs” tab for more financial aid statistics.

Our coaches also have tools that can help you unearth possible merit aid and find the right financial fit. If you’d like, y ou can schedule a free consultation with one of our college funding experts below.

Schedule a Free Consultation

Step Three: Apply for Third-Party Scholarships 

Research from shows that 1.7 million private scholarships and fellowships are awarded each year, amounting to a whopping $7.4 billion.

You have probably heard of the “big shot” scholarships offered by Nike, Dr. Pepper, or Starbucks. Your student might have even applied to some of these. The problem with these scholarships is that they are extraordinarily competitive. Families can grow very dispirited when their student puts a ton of work into the private scholarship game just to come up with nothing.

While we are not private scholarship aficionados, we have learned a thing or two while helping families create a plan to pay for college. Here are a few ways to improve your odds:

  1. Start early, ideally before your senior year of high school.
  2. Apply to smaller, local scholarships. They are much less competitive. To locate these, use Google keywords, ask your college counselor, and check with local businesses and community organizations.
  3. Not sure where to start? Consider a scholarship engine like Scholarship Owl, which will match scholarships to your profile.
  4. Identify scholarships that are a good fit and create a consistent process for application. While it’s partly a numbers game, avoid an all-out shotgun approach. What is your child interested in or passionate about?
  5. Your child can recycle essays. This does not mean copy and paste. You must still tailor each essay toward the specific prompt.

Do You Have a Plan to Pay for College?

These are the “big three” ways to reduce the cost of college that do not involve comprehensive financial planning. There are other tools and strategies you can use to reduce the cost of college. especially if you start planning for the cost as early as possible.

The College Funding Coach is a firm of passionate experts with one collective goal:  to ensure that as many families as possible secure funding for college while never compromising retirement goals and desires.

If you need a clear outline with a step-by-step plan, we’re here to help. This is a time for celebration, not a time to limit our future generations or compromise retirement.

Schedule a Free Consultation

Author: The College Funding Coach

For more ways to reduce the cost of college, here are 14 Ways to Minimize Student Loans.

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