New update on tuition and aid

Last week I was on a panel for the Educational Policy Institute presenting to a large number of muckety mucks about what the new presidential administration is proposing and could do regarding access and affordability for higher education. Now I’m sitting in Florida (where it’s bizarrely chilly) at the ACT meeting of state representatives hearing from colleagues on the issue of the economic impact on enrollment. I’m working on a more detailed research brief on the whole issue, but in the meantime, a few thoughts:
1) Lots of schools are very aggressively responding to the economic downturn – some by actually cutting back on enrollment. Very brave (or crazy, or both) Middlebury came out and said they might cut financial aid, among other things. Note: most places say they won’t touch aid at all, even though saying so doesn’t keep them from changing their aid levels.
2) My colleagues aren’t yet seeing difficulty with students getting student loans, but lots of anecdotes about students not able to access other loans (home mortgage, for instance) and lots more traffic at everyone’s financial aid offices.
3) The current stimulus package proposals aren’t likely to make much of a difference. A few more students might get a bit more money, but no one appears to get a windfall, and many schools will manipulate their funding formula so that they spend less, but the student doesn’t get anymore. To really make a difference, the administration needs to take a whack at REALLY fixing the system, not just throwing money down the well.
4) Most schools are expecting to increase tuition. Most plan to increase aid at the same time. They are panicked you won’t pick them this year, which may offer you the upper hand in some cases.

Here’s my take: college is a good investment. At the same time, I don’t think it’s always worth what anyone might pay – if you’re planning a career in a traditionally low income field, and you pick one of the most expensive schools in the country and fund it all with loans, you are, to put it delicately, kind of a ding dong.

Colleges and universities talk about “right fit” all the time. Yes, I think you should pick schools that fit, but I think there are so many schools that you can have good fit without breaking the bank. All self serving aside, that doesn’t mean you should just apply to the least expensive school, since very expensive schools may offer very generous aid. It does mean, however, that you shouldn’t get your heart stuck on the most expensive school until you find out what kind of money they might (MIGHT) offer (did I mention that Mason was the only school in the D.C. area listed on Princeton Review and Kiplinger’s best values lists?).

One last caution: If you pick a really expensive school based on a very pretty financial aid package, make sure the package level (assuming no major change in your finances) won’t shift dramatically in your second year. A few schools have realized they have a second opportunity to mess with you, by manipulating your financial aid package lower in your second (or third) year. Most schools avoid this since they run the risk that some students will just transfer out rather than paying the higher rate, but that doesn’t stop others from trying.

Finally – don’t panic. There’s lots of evidence that there will be lots of funds for college – so far most student loans are still being made, and many colleges are sufficiently worried about enrollment that they are digging deeper to provide more financial aid, at least for the time being. And again, in general college is still one of the best investments you can make (especially now!). Be seeing you.


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