College Affordability

Written by Lisa Bleich

College affordability is a complex issue, not easily tackled by colleges or families. I recently attended a symposium on college admissions trends that included independent college consultants and six admissions professionals from colleges at various levels of the food chain. We had an opportunity to discuss key issues around college affordability with

  • James Bock, Vice President and Dean of Admissions at Swarthmore College
  • Jonathan Burdick, Dean of College Admission and Vice Provost for Enrollment Initiatives at University of Rochester
  • Sean Kaylor, Vice President for Enrollment Management at Marist College
  • Julie Kerich, Interim Vice President and Dean of Admission and Financial Aid at Franklin & Marshall College
  • Amy Markum Director of Admission at Wheaton College
  • Robert Massa, Senior Vice President for Enrollment and Institutional Planning at Drew University

The discussion broke down into four general areas around affordability:

Expected Family Contribution: What Is Reasonable? Kerich, from Franklin and Marshall College, made the analogy that many families think nothing about taking out a loan for $30,000 to purchase a car, but those same families may balk at taking out a similar loan to fund their child’s college.   Bock, from Swarthmore College noted that no loans, does not meet loan-free.

Swarthmore and other colleges always include a self-help portion in a student’s financial aid package based on the family and student’s ability to absorb the debt over time. Colleges on the panel whose endowments were not large enough to meet full demonstrated need, relied on discounting through merit scholarships to attract students. All colleges agreed that families have increased their level of negotiation around financial/merit aid over the past several years and this makes it more difficult to manage enrollment and budgets.

Bifurcation of Students and Middle Class Squeeze. There was a general consensus among all attendees that post 2008, the student body at most private colleges represents the wealthy and the poor, and the middle class are getting pushed out due to the cost. Even with a healthy merit aid award of say $20,000, most families earning between $80,000 and $200,000 (in some instances) cannot afford to cover the remaining $35-40,000 to cover the difference.

As a result we are seeing a bifurcation in the market both of students and colleges. Markum, from Wheaton College said that many middle class families withdraw after July once the tuition bill comes. As much as they want to send their kids, once they get the bill, they realize that it is just not possible financially. Burdick from The University of Rochester expanded, “We have redefined education as a private good only, but we need a public investment toward education, but we can’t afford it.” 

Merit Aid Is Here to Stay. As much as the panelists would like to move toward a totally need-blind, need based financial aid system only, it is not realistic among tuition dependent, less select institutions. Families have come to expect “discounts” and even though it appears that they are giving money to families who could afford to go without the merit award, those same families perceive the value of these schools differently than other, more select colleges. Massa, from Drew, explained, “We entice families of means by discounting with “merit” scholarships. This was a great idea in 90’s, but because price has inflated so much and family incomes have not kept pace the gap has never been wider than it was today.” 

Running a College is Expensive and Becoming More So. Interestingly many of the panelists bemoaned the perception by the press that college budgets are bloated for administrative costs. The truth is that as colleges respond to the growing needs of students in terms of mental health support, academic support, technology integration, Title IX and sexual assault accountability, their costs continue to rise.

They embrace these new challenges, but feel as if the public does not realize that each new program, each new interdisciplinary, global technology dependent course costs money. Each time they add resources to support students’ growing needs, it cost money. This side of the equation is not typically illustrated when talking about college affordability and rising costs.

It was refreshing to hear a frank discussion about college affordability from experts in the field, who all share a desire to help students and families find the right financial fit.

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