If you're worried about paying for college, chances are you plan to limit your children's college choice to a public university in your state, largely because of higher education's skyrocketing costs.
If you live in California, it means you're holding in your mind the name of a choice from the nine-campus University of California (UC) system, or the 23-campus California State University (CSU) group . After all, isn't it such a better deal, money wise, than one of the wildly expensive private colleges patronized by wealthier people? This notion is probably the most common misconception about paying for college, and the toughest one to kill. Accordingly, the following instruction might shock you, even though it's a sound one:
Do not pay one bit of attention to any private college's sticker price.
Truth be known, if you are minimally a middle-class customer, you should be far more wary of your public universities' sticker prices -- especially if you happen to live in California.
In simplest terms, think of just how many private colleges exist in the United States today. There are about three times as many four-year private colleges as four-year public universities. So I ask you to use your everyday common sense here. Do you really believe that many privileged children exist to fill the seats of these 1,800-plus private colleges—ones with cost-of-attendance sticker prices anywhere from, say, $35,000 to upwards of $60,000 per year? Doesn't it make sense to you that if all of those rich kids' parents were really expected to pay such insane prices, we'd have a whole lot of empty private-college campuses on our hands?
So what's happening here?
Public universities' financial aid offices operate on what is often termed the "Federal Methodology," essentially meaning that it metes out federal- and state-generated funds in order to help the very most financially strapped and/or very highest-achieving students attend college…which means so many students who are caught in the vast socioeconomic middle pay the chosen public university's sticker price. Using our California example, typical middle-class students (hence their parents) who live in on-campus housing will pay around $34,000 per year for a UC education, and approximately $24,000 per year for the equivalent package at a CSU campus.
On first glance, the CSU education may look like a much better deal than the UC option. But one grim fact you may not know is that four-year graduation rates at many of the CSUs are exceptionally poor, thus it is nowadays typical for one's four-year degree at a CSU to take a whooping six years or longer to earn. Why? Basically, it boils down to a broken California economy and overpopulated campuses making it impossible to register for classes one needs to complete every semester in order to graduate within the normal four-year window. It's not at all unusual for classes to close on the very day they open for registration, which is a bad situation for the majority of students whose computer-generated appointments fall days or even weeks after that point in time.
The Education Conservancy's website "College Results Online" (www.collegeresults.org) tracks the four-year to six-year graduation rates at individual U.S. colleges and universities along with other pertinent information. CSU-Northridge, for example, currently shows a 2010 four-year-graduation rate of a woeful 14.2%! CSU's San Jose State University has an even sadder story to tell with its 7.9% four-year rate. Accordingly, it has become nearly impossible for most students to graduate from such schools in less than six years, no fault of their own…and even those six-year rates are nothing to write home about, both currently reported at a paltry 48%. Armed with this knowledge, the CSUs suddenly don't seem like such a cheap deal, considering the fact that one's four-year degree not only costs $50,000 more than it should, but also takes its recipient out of the full-time job market for two extra years. Sounds like a terrible idea to me.
Ok, now let's take a quick look at tony little Sarah Lawrence College (SLC) in New York, which is reported in many media sources as being the most expensive private college in the United States with its cost-of-attendance landing at approximately $63,000. Wow! How many people can pay $63,000 per year for college? Practically no one. Like virtually all other private colleges, Sarah Lawrence College works out its financial aid awards via the "Institutional Methodology," which means not only does it tap the same government-backed resources as public universities, but it has also developed its own institutional coffers in order to help students at every income and ability level afford to matriculate there.
At the public high school where I work, some of our graduates are current students at Sarah Lawrence College and similar schools, and I can tell you that all of them have received combinations of various forms of financial aid (scholarships, grants, work-study and loans) to help them be able to earn their degrees there. And SLC's four-year graduation rate? About 71%.
I spoke earlier today with one of our school's middle-income moms whose child attends Sarah Lawrence College. Given her child's financial aid package, she and her husband are paying only about $20,000 per year of SLC's $63,000 price tag. Remember the cost of attendance at the UCs and CSUs? She's paying slightly less for a top-drawer liberal arts college located on the east coast than it would cost to send her child up the freeway to CSU's San Francisco State University…and she pays around $14,000-per-year less than if her child had attended any UC campus! Surprised?
The bottom line: Do not hesitate to let your child apply to private colleges. Even some of the wealthiest parents find that their children of every ability level unexpectedly receive merit scholarships. Why? I think it's because such colleges know that even upper-income parents are positively swayed by discounts. And what, exactly, is a scholarship or grant? Truly, it's nothing more than a discount.
Don't be limited by an outmoded way of thinking about college costs. You're better off taking the road less traveled.