The College Search: Myths About The Cost

David Murphy says many people make wrong assumptions about which colleges are the most affordable.

May 12, 2010 7:32:32 AM PDT
Many people who haven't looked into it recently have some rather large misconceptions about how much different schools cost. This is based on false assumptions and an incomplete understanding of regular media reports about the price of a university education.

First of all, an Ivy League education does not cost any more than hundreds of other options. Excluding aid, going to Harvard, the University of Pennsylvania, or Princeton will run you very nearly the same as Boston University, Villanova, Bucknell, Lehigh, or a myriad of other quality, but less exclusive universities. All of these are excellent schools, of course, particularly in their specialized fields of study. But many people incorrectly assume that an education at M.I.T., Yale, or any of the other most competitive campuses, is tens of thousands of dollars more expensive than almost every other option, and that's simply not the case.

Most colleges fall into one of three categories. The first is what I call Expensive Schools, those with an average total cost as of 2009-2010 of roughly $50,000 per year. This is the combined cost of tuition, housing, and meal plans. A second class is the Small Private College whose cost runs $35,000 - $40,000 (some larger institutions also fit into this range). Finally, there are the large State Schools, whose cost is usually closer to $25,000 for in-state candidates. If you're from out of state, most of these places start sliding back up into that $35,000 - $40,000 range. Of course, these figures are on the rise across the board (one private school told us to expect a tuition increase of about $3,000 a year for all four years, for example), but the numbers have value in terms of comparison.

Tuition surprises

Of course, financial aid packages can greatly reduce the cost, and while aid differs from school to school, many people are surprised to learn that some of the most prestigious universities (those with the toughest admissions standards) are better than others at extending financial help. In other words, depending on the school and your individual situation, you may actually find it possible to attend an elite university for the same price as other colleges with less prestige. This isn't surprising, for two reasons. First, according to various college reviews, the endowments at some of these exclusive schools are so large they really don't need to charge tuition to turn a profit. Even during the downturn in the stock market, which put extra pressure on these endowments, many schools still managed to maintain generous aid programs, especially for students with limited financial resources. The second reason top schools offer generous aid programs is that many are trying to diversify their student body and are seeking a wider range of socio-economic experience in their populations.

There are some basic truths to college costs. In general, the best deals out there are usually offered by large state schools, assuming you're willing to attend one in your home state. Penn State, Rutgers and the University of Delaware come to mind, locally. Attending a community college for the first year or two is also a big money saver, assuming the college you transfer to later on gives you credit for all the coursework you've completed (you can usually work that out in advance by chatting with the two school's advisors). Community colleges (or satellite campuses of major state universities) also make living at home for part of the college years possible, a big money-saver. Furthermore, the brightest kids with the highest SATs and GPAs will always have the best shot at earning merit aid, and bright kids with the least resources will generally have the easiest time winning need-based aid. Second tier schools comprised largely of smaller colleges, as well as some larger technical institutions, are liable to remain the next cheapest option. But top-tier schools (the most expensive campuses) are numerous, and many are willing to help students bridge the financial gap.

The bottom line: it's smart to consider all sorts of universities as you begin your college search, and it's not a bad idea to include at least a couple more elite choices on your list of visits. If your student feels comfortable with the environment, sit down with an admissions officer and have a frank conversation about available aid. In the end, you may still have to fall back on a less expensive option. But don't discount a more expensive campus until you've fully investigated whether that $50,000+ price tag is the amount you'll actually have to pay.

MORE COLLEGE SEARCH ARTICLES: Federal Need-Based Aid, Can I ask For More Aid?, 529 Accounts, Upromise, The Best Way To Pay, High School Course/Activities, ACT/SAT, How Many Colleges Should I Put On My List?, Compiling A List, Unsolicited Brochures, Campus Visits, Applying For Admission, Types of Applications, College Trouble, College Depression, NCAA Athletics, Athletic Scholarships, The College Search Preface

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