A recent column in the New York Times rubbed me the wrong way. Entitled "Navigating Our Shameful, Maddeningly Complex Student Aid System," author Ron Lieber excoriates the entire monetary structure of college costs, financial aid, and the process of securing an affordable college experience. He recommends that "If you have a child who is already walking and talking and you will not be able to write a check to pay tuition, it’s best to start studying up on it now or finding a political candidate to support who will blow it all up." I disagree with his conclusion, and believe that determining where to go for college and figuring out how to pay for it can be an extremely insightful and satisfying process.
In all fairness, Ron Lieber's lens "is about anything and everything that hits you in the wallet, from investing to paying for college to mortgages and homes." In contrast, my lens is focused on your child: who they are now, what they have done and experienced, what are their passions, and how they would best be equipped to explore and develop their true vocation. When we look at the college search from this perspective, and rigorously evaluate potential colleges with high standards for their ability to develop our children through the next stage, things fall in to place rather quickly.
When you look at colleges from an economist's perspective, you quickly reduce your student and all colleges to simple commodities. In contrast, the truth is that your student is unique, and that colleges vary in their abilities to meet your student where they are and to challenge them to develop into who they can be. When it comes to your student, colleges are not interchangeable; where your child decides to spend their college year will have an impact on how fully they take advantage of this time in their life.
Mr Lieber writes: "...colleges will offer discounts ...if the school feels it needs to raise the quality of its freshman class in order to appear more attractive to future applicants who can (the hope is) afford to pay more." Intending to condemn the colleges for this process, this statement misses the opportunity for the student who really figures themselves out. A college that is well equipped to help a student meet their objectives will naturally be more inclined to make sure that these students have the financial support necessary to attend.
When students understand who they are, what they have accomplished so far, and what excites them about the future, they become able to recognize when the college seems to have been built just for them. These colleges have invested in the arts, athletics, academic disciplines in ways that form "a vibe" that works for the student. The students at these colleges are already engaged in activities and academics that create a learning and social environment that will just feel "right" to your student.
It's easy to believe that only students whose families can afford the college experience have the luxury to demand that their college 'fit.' But the opposite is true: students whose families cannot afford the sticker price may only be able to afford to attend the "right" college. Colleges need students that reinforce "the vibe" (a.k.a. "the brand") as much as students need colleges that can fulfill their expressive, social, and academic development over the course of their college career. Because colleges need students who reinforce "the vibe," the college that is "right" will have more incentive to make sure that you can afford to attend (vs. the college that does not have the activities and programs to fully develop your gifts).
Students who are willing to engage in my process of self-discernment, and discerning how well a college "fits," are rewarded with college acceptances with significant scholarships. In my experience, the colleges that "fit" well generally offer scholarships of $20K or more, usually awarded concurrently with admission. Additional dollars are often available; the need-based dollars are secured through completing your FAFSA application, and discussion with the college admission and financial aid office can secure additional funds. In contrast, colleges that are poor fits will offer lower (or no) scholarship dollars, basically signalling that you are welcome as long as you pay cash.
It is all about "fit." A college that recognizes the "fit" that you identify (and describe) will reward that "fit" with more scholarship money than the college that sees no particular "fit." Those same college that recognize the "fit" will be more excited about helping you afford attending that particular college.
Good luck with your college search! I am available to provide individualized college search services. Just contact me to get started.
Shepherding our children to adulthood demands our love, our attention, and our acceptance of who they are.