• Higher education costs weigh on families
    March 03,2013
     

    With my 17-year-old daughter headed to college, I tried out the new college scorecard tool launched by the Obama administration following the president’s State of the Union address.

    I was not impressed. Some links didn’t work and certain information I wanted wasn’t there. Overall, the tool just didn’t add much value to help our family figure out which college would be the most affordable.

    The tool, which you can find at www.whitehouse.gov, is too general when it comes to the final price of college, what the academic industry calls the “net price.”

    “Net price is what undergraduate students pay after grants and scholarships (financial aid you don’t have to pay back) are subtracted from the institution’s cost of attendance,” the scorecard tells us.

    Designed by the Department of Education, the scorecard includes the average net price data for in-state students, the school’s graduation rate, loan default rates, and median borrowing. Oh, and the data used for the average net price are for the 2010-11 academic year.

    Honestly, given what I’ve been experiencing and after talking to numerous other parents, the college scorecard doesn’t address our most pressing needs. What would help more would be an intensive effort by the administration to bring down the cost of college so families wouldn’t have to borrow so heavily.

    During a recent college tour, we saw one parent become very disheartened because her daughter, a good but not great student, wouldn’t be able to afford the cost of college — and she was a state resident visiting a state school.

    If a degree is a ticket to a middle-class job, then we’ve got to do something about bringing down the price of attending college. Even with a lot of merit and need-based scholarship and grant money available, there isn’t nearly enough to go around.

    My daughter Olivia, who has excellent grades, applied to four colleges — two in-state schools and two out of state. She was accepted at North Carolina A&T, Towson University, and the Honors College at the University of Maryland, College Park.

    The University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill turned her down. The UNC rejection notice was nice enough, a more “it’s not you, it’s us” rebuff.

    “With many more candidates than spaces, we cannot avoid making thousands of difficult decisions,” the vice provost wrote.

    My heart sunk when Olivia didn’t get into UNC. But the penny-pincher in me was jumping for joy. We’ve saved for her education, but not enough to pay the $43,848 annual out-of-state price for UNC.

    Across the country, families are now waiting for their letters that lay out how much money their kids might get to finance their educations. And when I say money, I don’t mean loans.

    We are waiting to see if our kid gets a grant, scholarship or work study from the colleges. If that money isn’t offered, many families will opt for loans. We won’t borrow. We hope if our daughter gets aid, we can use what we’ve saved to help her finance an advanced degree, which is increasingly required for many fields.

    Roberto Rodriguez, special assistant to the president for education, said the college scorecard is meant to be part of a suite of tools that families can use to help in the college selection process. You can find the tools by going to the National Center for Education Statistics’ website (www.nces.ed.gov) and searching for College Navigator.

    A useful tool I’m looking forward to is one the administration previously announced, a financial aid shopping sheet. The administration has gotten more than 600 colleges to agree to provide important financial information to incoming freshmen starting with the 2013-14 school year. As part of their financial aid packages, the schools said they would disclose these key pieces of information:

    They will be clearer about how much one year of college will cost.

    They will provide a better distinction between grants, scholarships and loans.

    They will provide estimated monthly payments for the federal student loans that graduates will likely owe.

    They will supply information about the percentages of students who enroll from one year to the next, graduate and repay their loans without defaulting.

    The shopping sheet is a tool the administration should demand that colleges provide. Right now it’s only voluntary.

    As hard as she tried, Olivia also didn’t make the cut for some very lucrative scholarships she applied for. Those letters said much the same as UNC’s rejection letter — that the competition is just too great.

    At least UNC saved us the trouble of breaking my kid’s heart. The rejection allowed us to exhale because the school’s net price calculator told us not to expect any financial aid anyway.

    Now we wait, like so many others, hoping we get some money from the schools that do want our daughter.



    Michelle Singletary is a financial columnist for The Washington Post.

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