Costing Complexity Holds Students Back

Olivia Sanchez

The Hechinger Report

University fees differ for almost everyone, as do plane tickets.

But while airline tickets vary by carrier, date of purchase, and luck, tuition depends on reported family income, assets, a student’s high school grades, type of institution that wishes to attend and mastering a complicated application system.

Although about 85% of freshmen at four-year residential colleges receive some kind of financial aid, families are scared off by the price tag, according to Phillip Levine, an economist who studies the issue. This listed price is a clear number, while the processes to reduce this number – through financial aid or other processes – are complex and far from transparent.

“If people think college costs way more than it actually does, that’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, don’t go.

Levine and other college access experts are now on a mission to make the road to college smoother — and ultimately more affordable — especially for families who have traditionally had a harder time accessing college. ‘Higher Education. Along with more money to help low-income students, they’re advocating for earlier and better communication with families when making college decisions, and better training for level counselors. secondary who try to help them.

“I think social mobility is an outcome that, regardless of your political perspective, is something you can achieve,” said Levine, a professor at Wellesley College. “University is a great way to promote social mobility. So to the extent that we have levers that we can pull that can help achieve that goal, it seems like we should.

Levine and three other experts discussed these “levers” during a Brookings Institute webinar last week promoting Levine’s new book, “A Problem of Fit: How the Complexity of College Pricing Hurts Students – and Universities.” . All agreed that too many families struggle to get the information and advice needed to make college funding choices.

For example, the listed price of college will not be the actual cost for most people because federal, state, or institutional financial aid can lower that price significantly. To get a more accurate estimate of what college will cost, Levine suggested families use net cost calculators, which incorporate the amount of financial aid that might be available. Colleges are required to have them on their websites; the US Department of Education has one, and many more have appeared online, including one that Levine created himself.

And while completing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA, is a vital step, Kim Cook, CEO of the National College Attainment Network, said families shouldn’t stop there. She said families should seek additional requests for things like state financial aid or local scholarships, and ask colleges about institutional aid.

Also, between the time a student receives an acceptance letter and financial aid package and the time the bill arrives, a student may feel overwhelmed by financial reality and reconsider college. If this happens, Cook said, families should call the college financial aid office. Families often don’t know that there are payment plans, work-study programs, or other options that could make it easier to fund a college education.

Lindsay Page, an associate professor of education policy at Brown University, said there needs to be investment in academic advisors so they can provide better advice and support in the incredibly complex application process. ‘university.

Students from higher-income families are more likely to have parents or family members who have navigated the systems themselves and can often pay college coaches to help them through the process. But first-generation students and students from low-income families may only have access to counseling offered at school, and school counselors may not be experts on what has become an increasingly more complicated. College counselors in public schools need better training to help students make the best choices, Page said, and schools should invest in more counselors.

College financial aid officers can also help by providing more information to families earlier. But Joy St. John, director of admissions and financial aid at Wellesley, said financial aid officers have competing pressures that can make early and clear communication difficult.

St. John, who will soon join Harvard as director of admissions, has worked in this field for nearly 25 years. She said financial aid officers often have to juggle institutional goals (such as enrolling a variety of students from diverse backgrounds) with distributing money in the most equitable way — while still remaining within a fluctuating university budget.

“All of these things can make an aid office very reluctant to appear to promise an amount of financial aid until they have a full financial aid application in front of them,” St. John said.

Still, she said, the tides could change as students and parents demand more transparency in the financial aid process “so they can list universities more strategically and responsibly.” .

Related: Professor hopes his quick calculator will show low-income students they can afford a selective college

Although college typically costs much less for low-income families than advertised, it’s often still too expensive, Levine said. Students who cannot afford it exclude themselves or find themselves laid off with debts that can have long-term consequences.

Instead of arguing for free college — a proposed solution he says wouldn’t solve the problem on a large enough scale — Levine agrees with a host of other college access advocates that the best is to provide more assistance to low-income students.

Students from low-income families are eligible for federal Pell grants for up to six years to help subsidize the cost of college education. Levine and others propose doubling the maximum amount students can receive per year; currently it is $6,495, which covers about 25% of tuition for a public four-year college. Cook said doubling it would bring it closer to its original goal of covering 75% of tuition.

Congress recently approved a $400 increase to the maximum Pell Grant and President Joe Biden has since proposed another increase of $2,175, though it’s unclear whether Congress will approve it. If the full proposed amount is approved, it would be a big step toward Biden’s goal of doubling the Pell grant by 2029.

Experts say there may be ways to improve college access and affordability beyond putting money directly into tuition, including providing more social support for families at low income before their children are of university age.

“If we really want to understand how to create better college opportunities for students, we need to look at what happens to them earlier in life,” said Sandy Baum, senior fellow at the Urban Institute and an expert in this field. Brookings webinar.

This story about the cost of college was produced by The Hechinger Report, an independent, nonprofit news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Subscribe to our higher education newsletter.

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Sharon D. Cole