This blog grew out of a twitter conversation on #collegecash that took place in late March. I thank those involved for their encouragement to write this up, and I welcome your feedback and suggestions.
College is expensive– no doubt about it. But when seeking an affordable college education, many people get distracted by the information provided by colleges and universities, and forget to find out what’s really important. Here are ideas about what you could focus on instead during this process.
1. What is the full cost of attending college, with everything included, and will this rise while you are in school?
Tuition and fees constitute about 40% of the full cost of a year of college; books, supplies and living expenses comprise the rest. This is especially important for students who hope to live on campus to consider. How much has the full cost of attendance (everything included) gone up over the last 5 years (remember, the ‘4 year’ degree now often takes 5 hi to complete).
2. Will your financial aid package change over time?
It is common to “front load” grants and scholarships such that students get more as first year students and less over time. Find out which elements of your package will remain for your second and third years of college (ask about institutional aid in particular). Also ask if grants and scholarships will increase in size if tuition rises. Find out if there is a state grant you are receiving, and if so what the deadline is to qualify each year so that you do not miss it. Also ask about the academic standards for keeping each of your grants and scholarships. Seek data on the percent of students who take loans, the typical debt of students in your income bracket, the percent of parents borrowing PLUS loans, and the institutional cohort default rate.
3. Who will help you with your financial challenges?
Does the institution have an emergency loan program? Does it offer grants for students in crisis? How do students obtain help from financial aid counselors (is there a line at the financial aid office during busy times?)? Is financial counseling offered on campus? Is free tax preparation available? If the institution is private, what fraction of the endowment is devoted to financial aid each year?
4. Are you a priority when it comes to institutional spending?
How much is the president or chancellor paid, compared to the faculty and advisors who will teach and guide you? Are there programs aimed at students like you, and if so how are they resourced? Are they facing capacity constraints? How will you access them?
5. What say will you have in how the college or university spends its money?
Who decides how segregated fees (which are rapidly growing) are allocated? Is the student government active in this regard? If so, does it merely provide input, or does it have veto power? How much have fees in particular gone up over the last 5 years? What have been the major projects they’ve funded?
6. What will it cost for you to “fit in” to campus life?
If being part of the campus social scene is important to you, find out what students do for fun and what that costs. You will want to fully participate in activities and go out with friends, and regularly finding yourself short of cash for that can be a buzz-kill. Ask students how much their social life, including clothing, runs them each month. Look around campus at how students dress and what they carry (e.g. electronics) for clues.
7. What are the other hidden costs of attendance you will experience?
How much does transportation cost? Is there a free bus pass for students? What about parking? What about the prices at nearby grocery stores? Can you find an inexpensive place to buy supplies like toilet paper and paper towels, or will you need to buy them on-campus? What tech support is provided, and what will that cost you?
8. Where will you work?
If you’ve been offered work-study funding, find out how you will obtain those jobs. Is there anyone to help you find the right one? How much does that work pay and how many hours can you work? If you intend to work off-campus, what are the available opportunities? What kinds of hours do students work, and are employers dependable and accommodating of students’ schedules? Are students working the night shift?
9. Who will teach you?
Colleges and universities are shifting to a part-time workforce that has little time or energy for advising or connection out of the classroom. Find out what percent of faculty members are tenured, what percent of introductory courses are taught by tenured faculty, and what the rate of faculty turnover is. In your intended major, what percent of tenured faculty teach regularly (e.g. every year, instead of being released to do research)? If you need to take classes in the evenings or on weekends because of your work schedule, who teaches during that time?
10. How will you learn?
What is the institutional approach to undergraduate education? How are professors trained to teach? What is involved in their professional development in teaching (and is it required)? How are they rewarded for teaching well? At what stage will you receive advising from a faculty member instead of a staff advisor? Do advisors meet with students in the evening and/or on weekends, to accommodate work schedules?