March 4, 2013

I wish I had more suggestions

for those of you who haven't yet hit the time when your children will be getting ready to graduate from high school and move on to college.  The biggest suggestion I have is this - be prepared to be stunned.  Stunned at how much more difficult it is to get into colleges now than when we went to college.  And stunned at how much you'll be expected to pay for your child to attend one of those colleges s/he does get into.  It's a crazy world out there in higher education.  And as a parent of a high school senior, I feel like navigating him through the process is equivalent to having a second full-time job.

I think I'm going to throw a few random thoughts and tidbits out there in no particular order.

These days, there's a thing called the Common Application, which nearly all colleges participate in.  In fact, most colleges ONLY accept applications through the Common App.  Most SUNY schools accept applications through their own app or the Common App.  CUNY accepts only their own.  I don't really know much about other state systems, but we did apply through the Common App to UVM (University of Vermont) and New College of Florida (which is part of their state system).  The Common App is an interesting phenomenon in that it certainly has made applying to colleges easier.  All of the applicant's information is stored in one place online, and it's ridiculously easy to keep track of the various applications.  To differentiate themselves from everyone else, most of the "better" colleges require special custom-designed supplements.  This may include a simple "why do you want to come here?" or having to share thoughts about a selected phrase from the college's mission statement or it may include something a bit more obscure like "pretend you're looking through a window and tell us what you see".  Some colleges (like Brown) really make their applicants jump through hoops by making them write numerous supplements.  That's a great way to weed out people who aren't *truly* interested in attending the college.  Which brings us to a particularly interesting result of the Common App - students are applying to more schools than ever simply because it's so easy to do so.  Which brings us back to the first stunning fact - it's much more difficult to get into colleges now than it used to be.  As a general rule, many, many colleges' applicant pools have increased so much that the acceptance rates have been driven down.  Hence, students apply to even more colleges and so continues the cycle.  Off the top of my head, I think J ended up applying to fourteen schools.  That sounds crazy to me, and while I think maybe most kids stick to around ten, fourteen is certainly not crazy in today's world.

Especially when you consider the current college costs.

Our strategy included casting a wide net in hopes that we end up with at least a few schools to choose from that seem relatively affordable.  We selected from three main groups - more elite colleges (small, liberal arts ones) that have relatively large endowments and are reputed to be relatively generous with how they define "need", "one- or two-steps down schools" that award merit scholarships to their best applicants and whose 75th percentile academic stats are below J's, and a SUNY school to be the financial "safety".  Unfortunately, the financial safety happens to be J's last choice and the only one he'd really rather not go to - not because it's a bad school by any means but because compared to all of the others we ended up selecting (very non-traditional, just like him!), it seems very rigid to J (and comparatively speaking, it is).

Hold onto your hats, friends, because here we go.

The typical annual cost of a private institution these days is running up to - brace yourself - $60,000.  $60,000!!!  I think at least four or five of J's selected schools are between $58,000 and $60,000.  Crazy.  And they've been increasing by a couple thousand dollars every year.  What you'll read and what you'll be told is not to worry so much about the "sticker prices", that what you really need to worry about are the "net prices".  What you may not read or be told is that for middle class families, those net prices are still remarkably high.  How high?, you might wonder.  Well, for our family with four children, our average expected contribution is running about 20% of our PREtax annual income (and that includes loans; without loans, it's higher).  How about if you don't have four children?  Well, my virtual parental peers indicate that for a couple of kids, the expected contribution runs 25%  - 33% of PREtax income and up to 40% of net income.  I don't know many (if any) middle class families that can part with up to 40% of their income without making very major sacrifices, and I don't know many (if any) middle class families that have been able to save enough money to pay for these costs that have been spiraling out of control.  

But, what about those merit scholarships?  Well, J was very fortunate at four schools so far to have received the "biggest and most prestigious" merit scholarships offered.  Um, guess what?  They hardly make a dent in the overall cost, and so far, it's likely that the balance of aid (or at least most of it) is offered up in the form of work study and student loans (unsubsidized, even, for us comfy middle classers).  I don't know about you, but I don't much consider work study and loans any real sort of "aid".  It's still us paying.

So what's a middle class family to do?

<sigh>  I'm not quite sure yet what the answer is for us.  Many families take out parent (PLUS) loans, but with four kids there's no way we're doing that, especially for the first one.  An increasing number of middle class graduates are staying at home for a couple years, commuting to a local college.  An increasing number are also attending a state school (um, that's why many of the state schools are tripling their double residence hall rooms).  Some kill themselves getting extra jobs, but we can't do that - I'm already wiped out as it is.  And some cut back to the bare bones, which doesn't seem like it's all that fair to younger children.

We're in a bit of a holding pattern at the moment because while J has received all of his EA (early action - there's a lot of lingo to learn!) decisions, he's still waiting on his RD (regular decision) ones.  We've just recently started getting estimated FA (financial aid) packages (an entirely different discussion that involves FAFSA, PROFILE, and iDOC) and are just starting to make sense of them.  J has two schools tied for top choice, and we've already appealed one of their FA packages.  I have no idea how that will turn out, but the worst they can do is say "no", right?  We're not even talking to any other FA offices until we hear back from this one because if we end up being able to work things out with them, we might well call it a day.  A very wonderful non-SUNY school actually would be doable, but it's farther away (a lot farther away) than J wants to be.  It's still on the table though.  It has to be.   

We'll see how all of this works out.  What I DO know is that we spent a significant amount of time choosing colleges we believed were genuinely the best fits for him, so my hope is that while he may not get to attend his first or second or even third choice, he will end up being just fine wherever he ends up.

This past weekend, I said to DH that an easy scenario to envision is this:
J attends Bennington College 
C attends FIT (SUNY school down in Manhattan)
B lives at home and in his own used car commutes back and forth to the local state university
S lives at home and takes the public bus (route 70!) back and forth to the local community college

Oh, how I don't like that vision - and our job right now is to try to prevent that from happening!

To end this post on a totally unrelated note, take a look at this cooled stock.  Are you kidding me?!  Look at this stuff!  I'm learning more tricks, which I'll save for another day to share.  :)

And I actually DO have some suggestions regarding this whole college adventure.  I'll save them for another day too.  Too much venting has made this girl tired and needing to go up to bed.  LOL!


  1. Oh Teresa, it's SICKENING what college costs are in this day! I have read article after article on college education. How MOST college graduates take years to pay off their debts, they push off marriage and kids because of it. It is becoming a downward spiral.... very sad and scary. I hope to read some uplifting posts that you have figured out a way around it! I will be in your shoes sometime soon!

    1. It IS very sad and scary. There are ways around it, but the whole thing definitely takes a ton of thought, research, and effort. It's SO easy to get caught up in the excitement of some of these private schools, and they truly ARE amazing. But then to step back and say "$160,000 amazing?". I don't know. . .

  2. It was so nice to read this older post *after* the fact of J's acceptance to Macauley....I felt your relief tenfold! :o) On the other hand, it made ME very anxious for Andrew & what lies ahead for him. We can't afford any of this... :o( Sue

    1. Thanks Sue!! And don't worry - I've learned a ton and I will help you! :)