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Decoding the price of college: Complexity of figuring out costs holds students back

Experts say many students think college is out of reach, despite financial aid options, because process of applying is too daunting

College costs differ for almost everyone, just like airline tickets.

But while plane tickets vary by carrier, date of purchase and luck, college costs hinge on reported family income, assets, the grades a student got in high school, the type of institution they want to attend and mastery of a complicated application system.

Although about 85 percent of freshmen at four-year residential colleges receive some kind of financial aid, families get scared off by the sticker price, according to Phillip Levine, an economist who studies the problem.  That sticker price is a clear number, while the processes for bringing that number down – through financial aid or other processes – are complex and far from transparent.

“If people think college costs a lot more than it actually does, that is bad for access,” Levine said. “If you can’t afford it, you can’t go. But if you think you can’t afford it, you don’t go.”

Levine and other college access experts are now on a mission to make the road to college smoother — and ultimately more affordable — especially for families who have traditionally had a harder time accessing higher education. Along with more money in aid for low-income students, they advocate for earlier and better communication with families as they make college-going decisions, and better training for counselors at the high school level who are trying to help them.

“Social mobility, I think, is an outcome that, regardless of your political perspective, is something that you can get behind,” said Levine, a professor at Wellesley College. “College is a great way to promote social mobility. So, to the extent that we have levers that we can pull that can help accomplish that goal, it seems like we should.”

Levine and three other experts discussed these “levers” at a Brookings Institute webinar last week promoting Levine’s new book, “A Problem of Fit: How the Complexity of College Pricing Hurts Students – and Universities.” All agreed that too many families struggle to get the information and guidance needed to make college financing choices. 

For example, a college’s sticker price will not be the actual cost for most people, as federal, state or institutional financial aid can bring that price down substantially. To get a more accurate estimate of what college will cost, Levine suggested families use net-cost calculators, which incorporate how much financial aid might be available. Colleges are required to have these on their websites; the U.S. Department of Education has one, and many others have popped up online, including one Levine created himself.

And although filling out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or the FAFSA, is a vital step, Kim Cook, CEO of the National College Attainment Network, said that families shouldn’t stop there. She said families should seek out additional applications for such things as state financial aid or local scholarships, and ask colleges about institutional aid.

Also, between the time a student receives a letter of acceptance and financial aid award package and the time the bill comes, a student may feel overwhelmed by the financial reality and reconsider going to college. If this happens, Cook said, families should call the college’s financial aid office. Often families are unaware there are payment plans, work-study programs or other options that might make financing college more feasible.

Lindsay Page, an associate professor of education policy at Brown University, said argued for investing in college counselors so that they can provide better advice and support in the incredibly complex process of applying to college.

Students from high-income families are more likely to have parents or family members who have navigated the systems themselves and often can pay college coaches to help them through the process. But first-generation students and students from low-income families may only have access to the guidance offered in school, and school counselors may not be experts on what has become an increasingly complicated process. College counselors in public schools need better training to help students make the best choices, Page said, and schools should invest in more counselors.

College financial aid officers can help, too, by providing families with more information sooner. But Joy St. John, director of admissions and financial aid at Wellesley, said that financial aid officers have competing pressures that can make early and clear communication difficult.

St. John, who will soon join Harvard as director of admissions, has worked in this field for nearly 25 years. She said that financial aid officers often have to juggle institutional goals (such as enrolling a variety students from diverse backgrounds) with divvying up money in the most equitable way – all while staying within a fluctuating college budget.

“All of these things can make an aid office very reluctant to appear to promise any amount of financial aid before they have a full financial aid application in front of them,” St. John said.

Still, she said, the tides could change as students and parents demand more transparency in the financial aid process “so that they can build a college list in a more strategic and more responsible way.”

Related: Professor hopes his quickie calculator will show low-income students they can afford a selective college

Though college typically costs low-income families much less than is advertised, it’s often still too expensive, Levine said. Students who can’t afford it either rule themselves out, or end up sacked with debt that can have long-term consequences.

Instead of advocating for free college – a proposed solution he said wouldn’t address the problem on a large enough scale – Levine agrees with a host of other college access advocates that the best bet is to provide more aid to low-income students.

Students from low-income families are eligible for federal Pell Grants for up to six years to help subsidize the cost of college. Levine and others propose doubling the maximum amount students can receive per year; right now it is $6,495, which covers roughly 25 percent of tuition for a public, four-year college. Cook said that doubling it would bring it closer to its original goal of covering 75 percent of tuition.

Congress recently approved a $400 increase to the maximum Pell Grant and President Joe Biden has since proposed another increase of $2,175, though it is unclear whether Congress will approve it. If the entire proposed amount is approved, it would be a large step toward Biden’s goal of doubling the Pell Grant by 2029.

Experts say there may be ways to improve college access and affordability beyond putting money directly toward tuition bills, including providing more social support for low-income families before their children are college-going age.

“If we really want to understand how to create better college opportunities for students, we have to look at what’s happening to them earlier in their lives,” Sandy Baum, a senior fellow at the Urban Institute and expert in this field, said at the Brookings webinar.

This story about the cost of college was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for our higher education newsletter.

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First-generation students and students from low-income families may only have access to the financial guidance offered in school, and school counselors may not be experts on what has become an increasingly complicated process.

“College is a great way to promote social mobility. So, to the extent that we have levers that we can pull that can help accomplish that goal, it seems like we should.”

— Phillip Levine, economics professor, Wellesley College