It’s a truism to say that the current financial upheavals in the world have prompted many of us to feel insecure about the future. Predictably, the media have begun to run stories about students who are changing their college choices because (according to the media), “they can no longer afford to attend the higher-priced private colleges they originally were interested in.” It’s easy to find these students and to report their stories–there’s dramatic tension in them, so they lend themselves well to storytelling. But, as is so often the case with media stories about higher education, they are also dangerously simplistic.
The most unfortunate part of these stories is that they encourage other students (and their families) to alter their college choices inappropriately. These stories focus on the cost of college–or, more accurately, on the perceived cost of college–as the primary factor on which to base a college choice. In doing so, they distract attention from what should be the primary factor–that of how good a match a particular college is for a particular student. Students who follow the path the media has set out for them are encouraged to “settle” for colleges that are not perhaps the best match for them.
The scenario typically offered by the media makes the assumption that a student’s family would pay the entire cost of college and, confronted by a decline in its financial resources, the family (and the student) is relegated to choosing a lower-priced college. At most high-priced private colleges, many (if not the majority of the) families cannot afford the full cost of education, so they receive financial aid to allow them to do so. If a family in this group has suffered a financial downturn, it will now be eligible for more financial aid than it might have been previously. Similarly, if a family that previously could have afforded the entire cost of education suffers such a downturn and no longer can afford the entire cost, it will now join the ranks of those who qualify for need-based aid.
Certainly, there is a small number of families who, like those featured in the media, have suffered a substantial downturn, but still will not qualify for need-based aid even at a private college. Those families are probably among the top 3 to 5 percent of the nation’s wealthiest families. So even though the cost of college is now higher in relation to their financial circumstances, the argument that they “must” choose a lower-priced college really is not accurate. They may “decide” to choose a less expensive college–but it is a choice, not a financial necessity.
College should be viewed as a long-term investment, as it will pay dividends over a lifetime. Students should not abandon their college dreams because of short-term financial challenges. If a student has a great experience at a college that is a great match for him or her, twenty years from now that experience will still be paying great dividends.
Stay tuned… there is more to come.
Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid