Paying for College: What the Media Fail to Point Out

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.

Steve Syverson

Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid

Changing the game of standardized tests

It has been said that you’re judged by the company you keep. If that’s the case, then Harvard should feel pretty good about itself after being mentioned alongside Lawrence University in two New York Times articles that have appeared in the past week, both about the importance–or overimportance–of standardized tests in the college admission process. The first one, “College Panel Calls for Less Focus on SATs,” ran Monday, September 22:

A commission convened by some of the country’s most influential college admission officials is recommending that colleges and universities move away from their reliance on SAT and ACT scores and shift toward admissions exams more closely tied to the high school curriculum and achievement… Read more.

Lawrence University’s dean of admissions and financial aid, Steve Syverson, served along with Harvard’s dean of admissions and financial aid, William Fitzsimmons, who chaired the commission. The commission has concluded something that Lawrence has known for years: standardized tests are not the best predictor of academic performance in college. (That’s why Lawrence gives students the option to choose whether they wish to have the university consider their test results in its admission review.)

Apparently there are a lot of people that feel the same way Lawrence does. At a session in Seattle at last week’s national conference for the National Association for College Admission Counseling (that’s a mouthful), Steve Syverson and the rest of the testing commission presented their findings to an enthusiastic (and fire-marshal-maddening) crowd. The New York Times followed up their September 22 article with another one that ran September 29, this time covering the conference.

For the 5,500 college admissions officials and high school guidance counselors who gathered here over the weekend, there were discussions, debates and analyses of things like the ethics of tracking student applicants on Facebook and “Why Good Students Write Bad College Essays — and How to Stop It… But for this crowd, at the Seattle convention center for the annual conference of the National Association for College Admission Counseling, the main event was William R. Fitzsimmons’s first public presentation of the findings of the Study of the Use of Standardized Tests in Undergraduate Admission… The line formed early for Mr. Fitzsimmons’s panel, and with more than 1,000 people jockeying for a limited number of seats — a scene that brought to mind the college admissions process — the event was moved to the ballroom. Read more.

Whether students choose to submit their tests to Lawrence or not, the admissions office knows that there is far more to students than standardized test performance. Student achievements and aspirations are far more important–and are the things should be spending their energy on.