Research consists in seeing what everyone else has seen, but thinking what no one else has thought.
– Albert Szent-Gyorgyi
News headlines remind us daily that the job market is still slow, personal debt continues to rise, most people are seriously anxious about the future, and many Americans are beginning to question the value of a college degree. Three years after the global economic meltdown, outcomes have become the gold standard for measuring a college’s worth.
High school students and their families are approaching the college search with far more caution and prudence than they might have even a few years ago.
Our survey of college counselors reveals that, with very few exceptions, what students and parents want from colleges today is remarkably simple: Foremost, they want to spend less money on college. Period. And even for the families who might still have the ability to pay, their willingness to invest in a college is most likely to be determined based on an institution’s reputation and its ability to prepare students for work after graduation.
According to these counselors, regardless of the value proposition colleges believe they are offering students, unless at least one of these three factors—cost, reputation, or career preparation—is met, students will move on to other choices.
The “sticker shock” of college costs was once primarily reserved for first-generation families or those who were planning to attend private colleges and universities. Today, however, it’s an almost universal phenomenon for college-bound students and their families, and college counselors find themselves responding to parent concerns by suggesting at least one “financially feasible” institution for every student.
“Price is getting everyone’s attention now,” says Frank Sachs, director of college counseling at The Blake School in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Even families who appear to be somewhat insulated from the downturn in the economy are wanting to tighten up a bit, according to Sachs. More than ever before, parents want to know what they’re getting for their money.
“And we weren’t having these conversations a few years ago,” he says.
As director of college counseling at Catlin Gabel School in Portland, Oregon, Nancy Donehower agrees that cost has definitely become more of a factor when families consider colleges. “This is true for families all across the economic spectrum,” she says.
Donehower has observed students and families paying closer attention to financial aid and scholarship information and making use of search sites like Fastweb in ways she didn’t see previously. Some of her families are adding public institutions to their college lists, whereas before they might only have considered private options. “We have tried to be responsive to this need for more financial information, and we now host a special session on our campus about the process of applying for financial aid from colleges,” she says.
Given the financial pressures of these times, Erin Duffy, upper school head at Seacrest Country Day School in Naples, Florida, likewise is addressing the subject of cost with her families much earlier, more frequently, and in more detail than perhaps was the case in the past. She calls it the “financial reality check” conversation.
“Even when families don’t appear to be concerned about finances, I encourage them to discuss cost when they begin their college search to hopefully stave off any disappointment when Susie Student is accepted into Dream-Reach-School U only to find that without merit scholarship money she cannot attend,” says Duffy.
Discussions about the affordability of higher education have always been integrated into the college counseling process at Cary Academy in Cary, North Carolina—if for no other reason than to temper expectations, according to Co-Director of College Counseling Laura Sellers. “It’s usually the case that when families start the college search process, hopes and expectations for [merit] aid are very high,” she says. “But when it gets down to the nitty-gritty numbers at the end, there is almost inevitably disappointment.” And so at Cary Academy, the college search has evolved to one in which finding the best college “fit” now takes into consideration the “financial fit” as well.
“We encourage our students to ‘develop their own rankings’ by creating spreadsheets with the qualities and characteristics that are most important to them,” explains Sellers. “In recent weeks I’ve seen some of these student-designed reports include not only a column for ‘average financial aid award’ but also ‘average student indebtedness.’ ”
Sellers is pleased that students are considering seriously what debt might mean for them. “It’s easy for students to get so excited about their admission that they don’t really stop to think about the long-term effects of loans of $8,000 a year versus $20,000 a year—or more,” she says. “They don’t grasp the exponential differences in these kinds of numbers.”
With a wide range of economic backgrounds in attendance at Sturgis Charter School, a public college preparatory school in Hyannis, Massachusetts, it’s little surprise that college counselor Beverly Fogg has seen families applying more consumer-like behavior to the college search process. “Many Sturgis families lack the financial resources to pay for college,” she says. “We now see students and parents looking hard at costs and making more fiscally realistic choices.”