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College Affordability and Preparedness

Challenging 3 Stubborn Narratives About College (Un)Affordability

Think of the most recent article you read about college costs. Did it provide reassurance that higher education is affordable? Talk about student borrowing in a positive light? Include the value of higher education beyond earnings potential? Chances are, you would answer “no” to all of these questions.

It seems as if our culture is increasingly saturated with stories that call attention to the worst-case scenarios: the student who takes out $100,000 in loans and ends up with the lowest-paying job, or a student who drops out of college with piles of debt but no degree. These stories are agonizing, and they stick in our minds. What’s missing in this narrative, however, is the reminder that these stories do not represent the overwhelming majority of student experiences in higher education. In fact, without a counterbalance, this narrative only adds to the magnitude of student and family misperceptions about college costs.

1. College still pays off very well for most

Postsecondary education not only benefits individual recipients through increased salaries, lifetime earnings and job opportunities — its value extends beyond financial gain and is associated with healthier lifestyles, civic participation and other improvements in one’s general quality of life. Furthermore, a Gallup survey of U.S. college graduates found that “how you go to college” matters: students should take advantage of internships, guidance from mentors such as faculty members and pursue activities towards their goals.

2. Most students owe less than expected

While many students need to borrow for college, the amount they’ll owe is often not as much as they fear. Understanding sticker price versus net price is a good first step in considering how to pay for college. Sticker price is the published tuition price, whereas net price is the amount a student actually pays to attend an institution after subtracting federal, state and institutional grant aid that does not need to be repaid. The difference between the published price and the actual price a student pays can be significant. Further adding to the complexity are the many nuances that arise, for example, some colleges with the highest sticker prices may offer the lowest net price for low-income students because they have more grant aid to offer based on need. The bottom line is not to let the “scary” price tag scare you off from considering college as an option outright because the majority of students receive some form of grant aid that reduces the cost. Keeping college as an option on the table helps your family start planning earlier about how to pay for postsecondary education.

3. Not all debt is impossible debt

There are ways for students and families to consider the “right” amount of borrowing to finance postsecondary education. A manageable amount of debt in the short-term is a very worthy investment for a lifelong payout. The key is figuring out what “manageable” means to each individual student and family, and how to maximize the investment. Whether it’s considering which type of institution, location, field of study, program quality, type of loan or repayment method, ways to save or time to degree, informed choices matter. Most students lack basic knowledge about college costs and financial literacy, and families need support and guidance in this process. The good news is you don’t have to go it alone. Your school counselor, college admission counselors and financial aid officers can help you and your family every step along the way.

Heather Durosko, Assistant Director of Strategic Initiatives, National Association for College Admission Counseling, [email protected]

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