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Is a College Education Attainable and Affordable Now?

The EvoLLLution | Is a College Education Attainable and Affordable Now?
As we head into a recession, institutions need to inform their students that college is attainable, affordable and critical to their future learning and ensure that they make it the case.

Schools and university campuses closed rapidly this spring. There was a dramatic rise in unemployment and forecasts of further economic distress. These forces are leading families and students to wonder whether a college education will be available for them and, even if it is, whether they can afford it.

Furthermore, there are questions about the efficacy and legitimacy of the expanded use of online or remote education. Many people question the quality of teaching in its rushed move from the classroom setting into an online environment and wonder about how student work will be assessed. Many colleges have adopted a pass/fail system for grades this spring, leading students to wonder how graduate schools and employers will accept their credentials.

The good news is that many colleges and universities had prior experience with online or distant teaching and learning. A subset of faculty was already using the technology, and centers for professional development had experts in the optimal use of technology.

The recent transition was challenging because of the short time frame in which it had to occur, and not without its glitches. By and large, though, it seems to be working, even with most faculty having no prior online experience. Faculty changed the kinds of assignments they required, reduced expectations about the workload students would be able to finish and changed testing in order to assist student learning. These courses were not massive online courses (MOOCs); these were regular courses within the traditional semester moved from a classroom onto the Internet.

Such changes were necessary because students and faculty were now working at home, and students did not have equal access to equipment and wi-fi. Not all had a quiet, private place to work either.

Colleges now have an opportunity to plan for the fall and following semesters and consider what worked well and what changes are needed. Some are saying that perhaps large lecture classes are better suited to online delivery than small discussion seminars. Colleges are also considering new and expanded ways to support student learning and success. More services are being made available online, as are counseling, clubs and cultural events. The environment is not the same, but the technology can be made to work for a great many courses as long as they are designed for distant learning and faculty members are both supported and support students.

While we hope that campuses will be up and welcoming students this fall, we must prepare for the possibility that they are not. No matter the case, the benefits of getting a college education far outweigh the reality of not getting one. College graduates, on average, earn more, have better health outcomes, experience higher levels of employment and are more likely to become involved in the community than those who do not attend. These are positive benefits.

Now, it is true that news about college costs, student loans and the potential for a recession paint a bleak picture for those whose children, or whose own aspirations, seek a college education in the near future. However, the articles about student debt greatly exaggerate the amount due per undergraduate student. The figures cited include those who borrow for medical and law school, those who attend predatory for-profit schools and those who borrow beyond their means in order to attend a “brand name” institution. Student debt is not good, but it is nowhere near as bad as some make it out to be.

As difficult as the future may seem, what with economic disruption and unfamiliar learning conditions, I urge families to ask questions about attainment and affordability before they arrive at a conclusion that may turn out to be a mistake.

I worry that families will decide, before asking for advice, that college is not affordable and will choose an alternative that neither helps their child nor themselves reach maximum potential.  Such choices include not going to college or making a decision based on price rather than merit.

Is a college education both attainable and affordable? The answer is yes! Consider the ways.

First, distant teaching and learning are being improved and will be used to supplement not substitute to having a teacher as a “guide on the side.” Colleges want students to succeed and will provide the services necessary to supporting student success. After all, they are graded on their graduation rates.

Second, students and families can ask questions about affordability as well as quality. They can ask about the “net” price.  The higher priced institution in your set of choices may charge higher tuition but offer more financial aid.  The college that seems to charge less may offer less financial aid.  It is essential to examine both the “sticker price” and the “net price” before deciding. The federal College Scorecard can help make such comparisons.

It is important to consider what benefits you or your child will receive in return for tuition and fees paid.  What quality of educational experience do you want?  Colleges vary greatly in terms of breadth and depth of courses and campus offerings, access to internships, level of preparation for graduate school, networks of alumni available for mentorship or to provide access to jobs and careers, and the opportunities for students to grow as individuals and citizens as well as in specialized subjects.

Colleges also differ substantially in their percentages of students who graduate on time. After all, the longer it takes, the more it costs. Think of tuition as an investment with great potential for positive returns on employment, careers, income and general well-being.

If tuition still seems out of reach, ask a financial aid officer for help.  These staff members are experts in assisting families, and they know about grants, loans, and campus jobs beyond those available through state and federal programs. They want to ensure the enrollment and retention of students.

Here are some other things to consider:

Savings plans

Look into 529 College Savings Plans.  Ask your employer if there are any college aid programs or other tuition assistance for the dependents of employees.

Loan default rates

Ask about the college’s loan default rate.  A low rate means that loans will still be available for you to take out through the college. A high rate can be a sign that the college is not paying adequate attention to admissions and services that support student success.

High school transfer credits

Ask if any of the courses taken while in high school count toward college requirements and thus help reduce the number of credits required for graduation.  Some students save a semester or a year this way.  In addition, if you plan to pursue an advanced degree, such as a master’s program, look for five-year programs that can save a student a year or more of tuition.

Room scholarships

Ask about “room” scholarships.  Colleges that have opened new dormitories and have less demand for them than expected may be willing to offer the rooms at reduced rates or for free.  Consider having your child live at home for two of the four years and then live on campus for the full collegiate experience.

Financial aid 

Ask about financial assistance available in winter or summer sessions, or for study abroad, and other opportunities for students to supplement and accelerate their degree credit work.

See if the college will review the financial aid package at a future date if family circumstances change for the worse. Ask about likely tuition increases and the availability of aid to help families meet those increases.

Also look for the different types of scholarships and financial aid available, including those designed to help families with lower incomes, those designed to recruit students of particular talents, those offered as a reward for academic merit, those awarded for extraordinary community service and other assistance, including institutional, state, and federal programs.

Jobs on campus

Review jobs available at colleges and universities. Many colleges offer generous tuition packages for employees and always look for the best and brightest to work on campus. This is a particularly good choice for recent college graduates who are considering graduate school.

Families also should talk realistically about college opportunities. After all, a large percentage of student debt is incurred by those who seek prestige instead of the best “fit” for a student’s particular interests, abilities and family income. Many successful people started at a community college or less expensive regional institution.

Is a college education attainable and affordable? Yes, and we must work with policy makers to ensure that it is. College is too important for individuals’ futures  and that of the country for us to reduce opportunities. My advice is to ask before deciding it is not for you or yours.

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