Paying for College: Good students will have good choices

May 5, 2003

by Howard and Matthew Greene

Every day local and national newspapers run stories highlighting the significant increases in college tuition, fees, and room and board charges for next year. In many cases, colleges, private and public, have increased costs of attendance by five to ten percent over last year. Simultaneously, more students are graduating high school and looking to college to provide them with financial and job security. In a tight employment market, higher education is a natural refuge. Families looking ahead to high school graduation in the next couple of years might be tempted to say, "Forget it! College is so expensive, I'll never be able to attend." We want to reassure you that despite increased prices, colleges across the country remain affordable to every family. Students have an important job, however, in making the wealth of financial assistance available from the federal and state governments, non-profit organizations, and colleges themselves more likely to be targeted in their direction. The fact is that students with good grades and good test scores, and not necessarily the best grades and test scores, will likely be offered significant merit-based financial awards, in addition to any need-based financial assistance for which they might qualify. They are also likelier to be admitted to their state universities, which provide significant educational opportunities at amazingly low costs. Many excellent public colleges and universities have in-state costs around $5,000 per year. Many others fall below $10,000. With state and federal subsidized loans available to most students, that price should not be prohibitive to students considering the long-term financial and career benefits associated with earning a college degree. Additionally, students with good grades and test scores will often find great deals at private colleges and universities, most of which offer discounts on their tuition to students they would like to recruit to their institution. Some seventy-five percent of students nationally do not pay the full price of college tuition. College tuition figures are starting to become like new car window sticker prices. They are subject to change and negotiation, and good students are often surprised when they receive a "presidential so-and-so $10,000 merit award", even when they have not applied for financial aid. Paying for college means playing it smart and balancing a college application list to include a variety of options: inexpensive public institutions in- and perhaps out-of-state; wealthy private colleges and universities that might be all or mostly "need-blind" in their admission process and which guarantee to cover all or most of a student's financial need upon enrollment; and private and public institutions, often ones that are farther away from home, that offer significant merit-based financial assistance in the form of scholarships that do not need to be repaid. There is some $90 billion worth of financial aid available to students today, and some of that can go your way if you work hard to get good grades and strong test scores, research those institutions that fit your talents, interests, and financial needs, and apply to a creative and diverse list of colleges and universities.