Paul Heinz

Original Fiction, Music and Essays

College Costs, part 2 - reasons for hope

Last week I wrote about college costs being a game changer and how the liberties taken a generation ago are no longer viable options: things like picking an unmarketable degree, graduating in five years instead of four, and applying to one school – sight unseen – and not worrying too much about it.  The risks of graduating with a huge amount of debt in a field with high unemployment are simply too great for most families to ignore the nuances of the college application process.

Fortunately, there are some tools and alternative approaches that can help ease the burden of college costs.

First and foremost is the advent of the net price calculator, which all secondary education institutions were required to offer on their websites as of last October (Libertarians may disagree, but there are instances when the Federal Government does some good, and The Higher Education Opportunity Act was overwhelmingly supported in Congress and signed into law by George W).

Net price calculators (NPCs) are a huge development because they shift power from the seller to the buyer.  Before, it was difficult, if not impossible, to get a good sense of what a university actually cost, because the buyer would be comparing retail – or sticker prices – instead of the actual likely cost.  Factors like salary, assets, savings, geography and family details weren’t taken into consideration until families were already knee-keep in the application process, putting them at a distinct disadvantage.

With the help of NPCs, you can learn very early on which schools are off the table and which schools can be legitimately pursued for your family’s situation, and the results might surprise you.  At my children’s high school, Frank Palmasani recently offered an example of a slightly above average student living in Illinois with parents earning a relatively modest income.

After running the numbers through an NPC at, which of the following schools do you think had the highest and lowest net price?

  • University of Illinois, Champaign-Urbana
  • Northern Illinois University
  • Purdue University
  • University of Wisconsin-LaCrosse
  • Duke University
  • Marquette University
  • North Park university

Any thoughts?  The answers will appear in a moment.

The great thing about utilizing NPCs is it keeps in play colleges that you might have disregarded, and it takes out of play colleges that you might have been considering.  NPCs give you and your child the power to focus your search on realistic schools, thereby preventing the scenario of having your child’s sights set on a particular school, only to discover late in the game that it’s way too costly (by which point the parent might give in and start accumulating serious debt).

The answer to the above for this particular family?  Purdue was the most costly at about $32k.  Duke (assuming the child could get into Duke) was the least costly at about $11k.  A surprise?  It was for me. NPCs are good places to start.

What if you have a high achieving student but don’t have a ton of money?  As the above example illustrates, many schools have now adopted need-based financial aid initiatives, which make attending Ivy League schools cheaper sometimes than in-state colleges.  At Harvard, in 2012, families making less than $60,000 have no expected parental contributions, and those with incomes up to $150k are expected to contribute only up to 10%.

Not too shabby.

Of course, not everyone can get into Harvard, so here are some other things to consider:

1)      Just because Lilly wants to attend Tulane in the worst way doesn’t mean that she should.  It’s important early on to communicate to children that they will attend as good a school as they can get into that works within the financial limitations of the family.  In a country where kids are often coddled, we need to draw the line at putting our futures (and our children’s futures) as risk by accumulating too much debt.  Adults don’t always get what they want.  Why should our kids?

2)      Consider this: according to a study done by Stacy Dale, it’s the level of school a student is accepted to, and not where the student ends up going, that best determines future financial success.  Isn’t that a fantastic, liberating discovery?  It follows the old adage: you get what you put into it.  The type of person who will succeed in life will likely succeed regardless of where that student attends school.

3)      I’ve spoken with two parents now whose children are attending a local community college for about $7000 a year with the thought of transferring to a four-year school after a year or two.  A hard sell, no doubt, for some students, but a good decision if your child has no clue what she wants to major in, or if your child didn’t perform very well in high school and now needs a second chance to prove to himself (and you) what he’s capable of.

4)      Some colleges are now offering 3-year programs, a fast-track degree program for those students who are dedicated and know precisely what they want to major in.  This is a natural result of crazy college expenses, and one I find a little disturbing, but it might be a good plan for certain students.

Of course, forgotten in all this sometimes is the idea that we should be raising considerate, caring, hard-working, life-loving kids.  Whatever you do, try to communicate that where a person goes to college is not the be-all end-all decision some make it out to be.   There are so many other things to worry about than college.  Let this be a fun, enlightening process.  Despite the financial implications, I’m really looking forward to sharing this process with my children.

Copyright, 2017, Paul Heinz, All Right Reserved