Thursday, October 20, 2011

College Anxiety: Cost and Competition

The college of my generation and of my parents' generation no longer exists.   College costs continue to rise each year at what seems to be a skyrocketing rate, and the number of applications to colleges continues to rise, making it more competitive for students to get admitted to some of their favorite schools.

This is certainly true in Virginia, where I work.  I recently had a meeting with a family where they asked me why there seem to be fewer students applying to out-of-state schools, especially those considered to be some of the top schools in the country.  My answer was simple--in Virginia we have some of the top ranked schools in the country.  The University of Virginia is considered to be one of the "best-values" in post-secondary education on a consistent basis each year, and it, along with the College of William and Mary, are said to offer what is often described as an "ivy-league education at a public-school price."  Thus, students and their families tend to apply to these in-state schools that have a strong reputation with a more reasonable cost than a Harvard or a Yale.

However, the concern is now that college continues to become more expensive across the country and at the same time it is becoming increasingly more difficult to gain admissions to some of these state schools considered on par with the Ivies.  This story from NPR, "Why is College So Expensive?" brings up the following points:
  • States are giving less funding to their public colleges and universities--the difference is made up in out-of-pocket tuition dollars from families
  • This is at the same time that the operational costs for universities is on the rise, namely to attract the top professors from around the world to teach and do research at their institution, and because of rising costs such as healthcare
  • Grant aid has not risen with the cost of tuition--Pell Grants pay a lot less of a college education than they did in the 70's and 80's
  • This is all at the same time that many families are struggling because of the economy--lost jobs or underemployment is common--thus, many families are taking out a great deal of public and also private loans to fund post-secondary education
This is important to acknowledge as school counselors for many reasons.  First, the anxiety that many parents and students feel about getting into college and then paying for college is very real.  Applications to state schools like UVA are on the rise and thus the competition is more and more steep each year--students with very strong academic and extra-curricular profiles worry that they are not going to get accepted.  Further, with the cost of a four-year education bordering on $60,000 to $100,000 and an economy that is still very much in recovery, families worry about how they are going to be able to pay for their child's education, and then worry about the job prospects after graduation.  Students may take out public and private loans but not be able to repay them for some time.

Something that I work on with students and their families is looking at a wider variety of options as they begin the application process--making sure they have a list of schools with different admissions criteria.  A strong student may get into UVA but be offered a small scholarship, whereas  they may get a much stronger financial aid package at a different school where there are seen as a leader on top of the heap of candidates.  I always remind them that the best school they can get into may not necessarily be the best school for them.  Further, many of my students look at alternative ways of funding college, through ROTC programs or the military--these programs may offer students a way to graduate more debt-free from college.  Finally, many more students are choosing the community-college route as a way to start.  In Northern Virginia, NOVA has a Guaranteed Admissions Program where a student can get an Associate's Degree and then, depending on the GPA, automatically gain admissions to any public university in Virginia.  By looking at multiple options, both for college choices as well as ways to pay for it, perhaps we can help to ease the understandable anxiety about post-secondary education for our students and their families.

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