How to pay less for college: Merit aid

David Brancaccio, Meredith Garretson, Rose Conlon, Erika Soderstrom, and Alex Schroeder Jan 26, 2021
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Parents may want to impress outsiders by getting their child into a prestigious college. “But what other people don't understand,” says New York Times columnist Ron Lieber, “is whatever financial constraints you may be operating under." Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

How to pay less for college: Merit aid

David Brancaccio, Meredith Garretson, Rose Conlon, Erika Soderstrom, and Alex Schroeder Jan 26, 2021
Heard on:
Parents may want to impress outsiders by getting their child into a prestigious college. “But what other people don't understand,” says New York Times columnist Ron Lieber, “is whatever financial constraints you may be operating under." Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images
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Paying for college could easily become the biggest money decision you ever make. This depends on the cost of homes where you live, how many children you might have and what kind of college they go to.

But think about it: The typical price of a house or condo in the U.S. is almost $300,000. To pay full price for a high-end college, including room and board and more? There’s $80,000 a year over four years, which puts you at $320,000 — if one of these most expensive colleges is right for the student.

How did we get to this point? And are there better ways to shop for college? Parents try to be financially rational and look for the best deals, but the truth of the matter is that families face intense social pressures.

Ron Lieber, author of the “Your Money” column in The New York Times, immersed himself in this world. His new book, “The Price You Pay for College,” is framed as a road map.

“What I was trying to do for people is to help them have the most emotionally intelligent college-shopping experience they possibly could,” Lieber said. “Because if you get in touch with the feelings that can affect you, in this particular process — things like fear and guilt and snobbery — then you’ll have a better sense of the ways in which you might be fooled or tricked internally into spending more than you need to and more than you want to.”

Student loan debt in the U.S. has ballooned to more than $1.7 trillion, according to the Federal Reserve. The reason, Lieber said, is not just expensive faculty and state underfunding. It’s also about, as it’s always been, emotions — parents who don’t want to say no to their kids when the stakes are so high.

The following is an edited transcript of Lieber’s conversation with “Marketplace Morning Report” host David Brancaccio.

David Brancaccio: The rational piece of your brain wants to say, “OK, honey, everyone can’t own a Ferrari.” But loads of people will make you and your kid try to feel like a failure if the kid doesn’t get into the Ferrari of colleges.

Ron Lieber: Well, this is the thing about that, right? Because some of this is about the gold star for parenting that you might acquire as a mom or as a dad if your kid gets into a college that is somehow impressive to other people. But what other people don’t understand is whatever financial constraints you may be operating under.

And, also, there’s all sorts of people in your community who have no idea that all sorts of pretty selective schools are bidding behind the scenes with tens of thousands of dollars off each year, in this form of discounting known as merit aid, that might well make it be a really good decision, even if you’re turning down a school that might be more impressive to those people.

“College shaming”

Brancaccio: I like the part of this section on emotions, where you kind of turn this around on people who might be nudging you. Like, let’s say it’s your parents bugging you about their grandchild. I mean, what do you suggest? You say, “Well, OK then dear grandparent, how about you pay some of this?”

Lieber: Exactly. Right? I mean, the whole script for having a conversation with the grandparents, where you ask them to pay some, is its own topic. But I think some of what we’re talking about here is the kind of guilt, right, if your parents, as a middle-aged person say, if your parents did it for you, they paid for you, they got you into a spot that allowed you to sort of reach for the stars, however you define that, you feel duty bound to do the same thing for your own teenage children. And your parents, the grandparents themselves, they’re letting you know that either subtly or not so subtly.

But here’s the thing: You have to say to yourself things are a lot different than they used to be. The cost of college, certainly the retail price, and even the net price, is going up at much higher than the rate of inflation. And also, it’s way more competitive to get into these schools than it used to be. So you know, if your own aging parents are making you feel like you’re doing something wrong because you’re making different choices, just stop and remind yourself how different the world is.

Brancaccio: Yeah. And that’s essentially raising consciousness with the grandparents. Maybe we need to raise consciousness about these issues more widely in schools among the students’ peers. I mean, we try to combat body shaming, right Ron? What about college shaming? That’s what we’re talking about.

Lieber: You know, I think it’s an excellent idea. In the reporting, I spoke to all sorts of guidance counselors who help high school seniors apply to college. And one of the challenges they have is that they’re just overrun, overwhelmed, budget cuts, you know, particularly in the last year during the pandemic. They’ve got more students to see, more desperation, more uncertainty with the colleges. It is all they can do to help a couple hundred students find the right fit for admissions purposes. They cannot counsel everyone about their finances, and their odds of getting, you know, need-based aid or these merit aid scholarships that used to be known as “academic awards,” right? They just can’t do it. And so there are not enough grown-ups who know how the system works, to help kind of talk people off of the edge and make them comfortable with the decisions that they are making.

Wanting to leave your kids better off than you were

Brancaccio: Another one of these unproductive emotions, but it’s there, is a fear really, that’s based on something real. We all worry that we’re not setting up our kids to do as well or better than we did. And we have this notion that maybe if they got them into the right school, or even a fancy school, they’d have better odds of not being that statistic.

Lieber: Yeah, much of the decision-making here is governed by the sort of fear of falling. So if you are a person with more money than average, you probably worked pretty hard to get there or you inherited a bunch and you’re working like mad to make sure that your little all is preserved. And so you don’t want your kid to go tumbling down the social-class ladder. And what is about to happen is that you’re going to make a purchase decision involving a six-figure amount of money that will directly affect the trajectory of their lives. So you would actually be sort of nuts not to be worried.

So I’m trying to channel that fear into something more constructive — not towards borrowing as much as possible to necessarily reach for the most expensive or prestigious school, but to channel that fear into a sort of determination to ask the best possible questions that are particular to your individual child, that will allow you to make a decision that inspires hope, as opposed to being scared.

Practical advice for making the best financial decisions about college

Filling out the FAFSA

If a family’s income is lower, they may be eligible for help with college costs that would be triggered by filling out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, the FAFSA. But for many middle-class families, that may not help all that much, that money.

“Families with, let’s call it, low-six-figure incomes may not qualify for much, if any, need-based aid at the schools that they’re applying to, but they’re probably not earning enough to just go around writing $25,000 checks to the flagship state university, let alone a $60,000 or $70,000 check to another one,” Lieber said.

The good news, however, is that competition among schools to attract students has pushed many into offering generous aid packages. His advice? Turn to merit-based aid, which just about every school in the country pays in one way, shape or form.

“The most selective schools that do offer merit aid may still only give it to the top 10% or 20% of the admitted students,” Lieber said. “But farther down the food chain, there are schools that literally have to give everyone a pony — everybody gets merit aid at a lot of private colleges now.”

The hard part is figuring out which kinds of schools you are dealing with. Wouldn’t it be nice if there were a list that would just tell you which schools pay which amounts of merit-based aid and under which circumstances? Unfortunately, Lieber said, it’s not really in institutions’ best interest to be supertransparent about all of that. Some schools, particularly state schools, are better than others about saying in advance what kind of aid or price tag you might see.

Where do you get started with research, then, to try to dig up information on all the others?

The elusive Common Data Set

A school’s Common Data Set, Lieber said, can hold the answers you’re looking for. It’s a “strange, small-font” document often nowhere near the admissions or financial aid websites. Yet it’s something that nearly every school fills out, and it’s a PDF where all of the demographic and academic performance and on-campus experience data can live for the U.S. News and other college ratings and rankings services to access it.

Google “name of college Common Data Set” and look for Section H-2A. It’s there you’ll find some numbers on families who aren’t getting need-based aid, but the school is giving them money anyway.

“They don’t use the term ‘merit aid’ there. But that’s what they mean,” Lieber said.

You can see the average amount of merit aid, and you can figure out what percentage of students actually got that merit aid.

Once you have that data on hand, you can look elsewhere to figure out what, say, the top 25% of a recent incoming class looked like in terms of grades or test scores. You can start to game out “OK, my kid looks like he’s in the ballpark in terms of academic performance for this school. And it looks like kids who were in that ballpark last time around got this certain discount.” This kind of analysis can at least provide a rough outline for what to expect from various schools.

This won’t tell you everything you need to know, however. You can’t know for certain where your kids will get in, for one.

What to look for on college visits

Lieber said visual note taking is a must-do.

“You always want to have your camera on your phone ready and your phone charged because you’ll see the most amazing things on the wall,” he said.

Take his experience on a tour at Colorado College, for example. One chapter of his book focuses on the mental illness epidemic on college campuses in the U.S.

“There was a poster and there were a bunch of undergrads there on the poster named with their real names and their diagnoses,” he said. “So if I am a parent, and my child has suffered from mental illness, and I want to make sure that they’re in an environment where it’s OK to talk about that and where they’ll find friends who are open about it, too, that’s something that’s important to me. And if I’m thinking about spending extra, above and beyond whatever my state university charges, that’s the sort of thing that, you know, could be a difference maker.”

Lieber also suggests looking for other ways to get a sense of what life at a particular school is like beyond the “confines of a carefully constructed tour experience.” That might mean looking at the college newspaper or even scrolling the various Twitter and Instagram feeds associated with student life while, of course, keeping in mind that these can be highly curated.

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