6 Down, 3 to Go

Confessions of a Community College Dean

The Girl heard from college No. 6 on Saturday. So far, she’s six for six in terms of getting in. The other three are supposed to report by April 1. (Side note: putting college admission day on April Fools’ Day doesn’t seem right somehow.)

The financial piece is somewhat more complicated. We’re paying closer attention this time around, having learned our lesson with TB.

Five of the six places to which she has been admitted have offered financial information. The sixth seems to be taking its time, for reasons unknown. But even among the five that have told us what we need to know, I’ve noticed a few things.

First, the family contribution is awfully similar for each school so far. Whether that’s a sign of collusion, a reliance on a common formula or just a cruel joke of the universe, they seem not to engage in meaningful price competition. That’s… odd.

What makes it odd is the second point: “merit” aid gets folded into “need” aid. In other words, at the places that distinguish “merit” aid from “need” aid, the “merit” aid reduces the “need” aid. For instance, if her need is $30,000, and she gets a $10,000 merit scholarship, they reduce the need aid to $20,000. She’s no better off with “merit” aid than without it, unless our income suddenly goes way up. At that point, presumably, “need” would vanish but “merit” would remain.

Put differently, “merit” only applies if your family has money. Otherwise, it’s just a subcategory of need.

Contrast that to, say, athletic scholarships. A student with a great jump shot gets a free ride, regardless of need, even if the school loses millions on its athletic program. (Not naming any names…) But a student who devoted that time and energy instead to building a genuinely impressive academic and co-curricular record gets only what she would have received anyway.

Harrump. And you can quote me on that.

Third, I’ve seen loans come in multiple different flavors. There’s the gold standard, which is the federal subsidized loan. That one is interest-free until after graduation. It’s still a loan, but the fact that it doesn’t start accruing interest for several years is helpful. Some schools also have interest-deferred loans funded by the school itself. Again, loans need to be paid back, but at least offering them at no interest for several years is helpful. The third kind is interest-bearing from the moment of origin, which is obviously not as good. So far I haven’t seen any mention of the dreaded fourth kind—Parent PLUS—or the scary fifth kind, which is entirely private. Those can lead to some pretty rough outcomes.

The most recent school specifically noted that the aid calculation it offered was based on knowing that TB will be at UVA next year. That’s true, and it’s also true that paying two tuitions on the same level of income is objectively harder. But it also makes it more difficult to project beyond next year, at which point (presumably) TB will have graduated. What would the aid have looked like without that? At this point, I simply don’t know. It matters because if all goes well, they’ll only overlap for one year. Here, “merit” may make a difference; If the calculation of “need” goes way down after TB graduates, a “merit” award may persist.

I’ve also noticed some pretty significant disparities in cost estimates for books and miscellaneous expenses. That’s to be expected, I suppose, but the contrast with the near uniformity of calculated need is hard not to notice.

Finally, of course, there’s the sheer insanity of sticker prices. Her most recent offer, which ended in the same ballpark as the others, started with a sticker price of slightly over $87,000 for one year. (Admittedly, that includes books and “miscellaneous,” but still.) In my world, that’s about as real as Monopoly money. I assume that many students from families who aren’t as familiar with the culture of higher ed may take one look at a figure like that, gasp and rule it out. I couldn’t blame them.

So far, she’s handling the countdown remarkably well. I’ve made the point several times that she already has several terrific options in her back pocket, and that she would have a fantastic experience at any of them. She concedes the point but still wants the full picture. Fair enough.

Here’s hoping there’s no wait-listing. We all want resolution.

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Advice Newsletter publication dates:
Sunday, March 20, 2022
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Sunday, March 20, 2022

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