Usually it starts with the long walk to the mailbox. Then the hand pulls out an envelope and holds it up to the light to try to guess its contents. It builds to the inevitable crescendo as the nail-biting teenager pulls out the letter, revealing whether she got into the college of her choice. An acceptance or rejection from college was considered to be such an important rite of passage in a young person’s life that it was portrayed in TV shows and movies for decades. But even that has changed. Now the big reveal often comes in the form of a businesslike e-mail, alerting the applicant that a decision has been posted in his or her account. More importantly, the acceptance comes at the end of a long and winding road marked by massive financial barriers, life-altering decisions made in a relatively short period of time, and a leap of faith that the investment in education at that school will pay off.
In the Digital Era, the application process and the ways in which schools market to perspective students has changed dramatically. “Now students have got not only print media coming at them, but also e-mail media and social media,” says Rider University Dean of Admissions Susan Christian.
But as colleges and universities become exponentially more expensive to attend each year, for the majority of families, the changes in the application and admissions process take a back seat to the financial concerns. Ultimately, rising tuition costs—to the tune of more than percent per year—leave parents and students with the intractable conundrum of deciding if they can (or should) spend hundreds of thousands of dollars for a college degree at public and private institutions nationwide. And if they can’t afford it, is it sensible for them to wrack up massive student loan debt in order to pay for their education? Now at its highest number in history—$1.2 trillion nationally—student debt has increased 84 percent since the 2008 recession, according to a study by information services firm Experian. In 2014, NewsOK reported that 40 million consumers now have at least one student loan with a national average balance of $29,400.
Unfortunately, the costs of colleges and universities don’t show signs of stabilizing, and parents continue to scratch their heads, wondering why this is happening and what they can do to make the right decision for their children and themselves. Last year, The Washington Post ran a 10-part series, called “The Tuition is Too Damn High,” which explored the causes and potential consequences (plus possible solutions) of the skyrocketing costs of higher ed. The third part of the series offered likely reasons tuition is climbing at public, private, and community colleges at such an alarming rate. In the case of the public institutions, the article explained that many states have shifted monies away from schools, placing the burden of revenue on the schools, which, in many cases, has landed in the laps of the students and their families. The second reason was that colleges are spending more (on infrastructure and conducting more research), leaving parents to pick up the tab.
Whatever the reasons, parents and students are faced with an average of $9,139 a year for in-state public tuition, $22,958 a year for out-of-state public tuition, and $31,231 a year for a private nonprofit school, according to the College Board. “The cost of college has dramatically increased over the past 10 to 20 years, and parents’ income hasn’t kept pace, so the ability to afford an education is more challenging,” Christian says. “In response, a lot of schools are offering more scholarship and financial aid. But still, the price tag is there.”
A Changing Landscape
While some schools deny it, financial aid in the form of merit and academic scholarship is often impacted by need and the financial status of the applicant. Stacy Zanine, whose daughter, Shelby, is a senior in the Central Bucks School District, found there wasn’t as much merit-based financial aid as the schools originally portrayed. After an 18-month process, narrowing down her options and visiting schools on her list, Shelby applied to five schools for engineering, including Boston University, Tufts, Northeastern, Penn State, and the University of Maryland. Now she has to pull the trigger on one of them.
From Zanine’s perspective, it’s important to know what kind of degree you want and how much debt the field will enable you to pay off before you even apply. “When I was in high school looking at colleges, I didn’t feel like most people knew what they wanted to do in college,” Zanine recalls. “Now, when you’re looking at schools and the amount of money it’s going to cost, it’s smart to have an idea of what you’re going into.” Otherwise, you could be gambling with hundreds of thousands of dollars, she says.
While Christian says it’s not necessary for students to come in with a declared major, she recognizes that parents and students are going to want to see a return on their investment. “If you’re spending $40,000 to $60,000 per year, you want to make sure you’re coming out with something on the other side,” she says. “Students—and parents—today are much more savvy customers in terms of higher education. They want to make sure they will ultimately be prepared for the world of work.”
Zanine cautions parents that the college search is an overwhelming process, both in terms of admissions and the financial ramifications. To head this off at the pass, she recommends setting some parameters for choosing schools, such as distance from home or tuition. It’s also important to give your children a frame of reference so they understand the costs associated with the schools, she says. “I wish we would have had more financial discussions,” she says. “What does it mean to go to a state school versus a private school, versus another private school that’s $60,000 a year?”
Part of the problem for parents is that, despite the astronomical increase in costs, the competition is still as high—or higher—at many schools, with astounding increased enrollment nationwide. According to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), enrollment in degree-granting institutions increased by 11 percent between 1991 and 2001. Between 2001 and 2011, enrollment increased 32 percent. From 2011 to 2021, NCES projects a rise of 13 percent in enrollments of students under 25, and a rise of 14 percent in enrollments of students 25 and over.
Since the competitiveness has increased, students are applying to more schools—sometimes between 15 to 20 colleges and universities, which is causing some schools to look differently at the applications they are receiving. “Keep in mind that this inflation in the application pool is causing some colleges to ask questions about the applicant, like Have they been here to visit? Have they shown a real interest?” Christian says. “Sometimes that’s as much of a determinant as the student’s academic ability.”
Deciding how many schools to apply to and whether to apply early decision or early admission, creating the Common Application, and writing essays takes a huge amount of time, Zanine says. “Shelby looked at it and said, ‘This application process is so involved, I have to be realistic.’ She cut out schools that she might have considered if the application process weren’t so involved.”
After the final decision is made, students should feel confident that—first and foremost—the school is going to arm them with the skills they need to succeed in the workforce, regardless of their major or program. “You can still follow your passion, but you have to have some practicality to your approach,” Christian says. “Companies are looking for employees who are well-rounded, can hit the ground running, and think on their feet.”