College tuition equation

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(Host) Nervous high school seniors, nervous parents. Commentator Allen Gilbert observes that it’s the time of year for college acceptances and financial aid awards.

(Gilbert) April is traditionally the month that high school seniors get their college acceptance letters. Fat envelopes bring good news, skinny envelopes bad news.

Despite veneers of calm, I suspect that seniors are churning inside. On the line are where and how they will spend the next four years of their lives. Decisions have to be made by the end of the month.

Admission, though, is only half the game in getting to college. The other half is paying for it. The most important letter after the acceptance letter is the financial aid award. It outlines how the college proposes that a family pay for college.

I recently read an op-ed telling parents to lighten up about college admissions. A child won’t be marked for life as a failure if she doesn’t get into Harvard. Have faith that in the end your child will find a good “fit” and will do well wherever she goes, the writer advised.

To my mind, the writer was focused on only half of the game — the admission letter. She was ignoring the other half — the financial aid award. And while I think that many parents do worry needlessly about the college choices that their children make, I also think that parents are justifiably apprehensive about how to pay for college.

College is a major expense. Cheap schools run $20,000 a year for tuition, room, board, and books. High-end private liberal arts schools top out at $40,000 plus. Four times $40,000 is $160,000. That’s more money than most of us paid for our homes.

The interplay of admissions and aid makes the college game maddeningly complex. Your student might get into Wesleyan, but if you can’t pay the bills, the admission is hollow. Yes, there is financial aid – but the majority of aid these days is loans. The $40,000 cost actually climbs higher if you must take out loans to pay the college bills. You pay points to borrow the money, and then you pay interest.

Many families depend on what’s called merit aid to help them meet college costs. Merit aid is essentially a discount on the college’s sticker price. The size of the discount depends on how badly the college wants your student. One school may want your student because she’s a basketball star. Another school may want your student because he has high SAT scores.

The college admissions process has become like a street market bazaar. Colleges have to market themselves to students, and students have to market themselves to colleges. In the middle are parents, who regret that their child isn’t a Mozart or a Bill Bradley.

So, yes, high school seniors are nervous at this time of year. But their parents are, too, and correctly so. The challenges that they face shouldn’t be dismissed. Their bank account, as well as the family nest, is about to be emptied. And if the family’s college savings are in the stock market? Ouch. Double the anxiety.

This is Allen Gilbert

Allen Gilbert is a writer and parent active in education and civil liberties issues.

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