educationvirtual children by Scott Warnock

The mysteries of college costs

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If you’re of/in a certain stage/mindset/class, you’re thinking about where your kids are going to go to college. More likely, you’re lying awake at night wondering how you’re going to pay for it, perhaps tinged with a nagging feeling that maybe you shouldn’t bother.

I suspect the “Should I bother?” conversation will gather some steam over the next few years, but till then, many of us will still be trying to figure out the finances of higher ed.

Okay, it’s expensive; we know that. The problem isn’t just cost, though, but that it’s not clear what the real cost is. College is one of the most elusive price tags we face in America, maybe only next to cell phone pricing plans.

Okay, it’s going up, we know that too. But that conversation is normally about tuition. There’s more to it. A piece in The Chronicle of Higher Education put it straightforwardly: “Forget the Rise in Tuition and Fees, What About Living Expenses?” Zakiya Smith, a strategy director at the Lumina Foundation, said living expenses are an “underdiscussed” aspect of college pricing. Also, the article cited another big, underappreciated college expense: the “opportunity cost,” or the time you spend in and doing work for class that can’t be spent working. Overall, to get a handle on the overall price tag, families have to consider a somewhat complex “cost of attendance.” Colleges might do more to help families figure that out.

The other side of any “Should I bother?” conversations is simple right now: Demand for college remains high, especially the demand driven by people mesmerized with the owning-a-Zenith-U-sweatshirt idea of where they want their kids to go to school: They want it to look good to their country club friends.

If you can avoid that pressure, there are surprises out there for you. Programs like NJ STARS (Student Tuition Assistance Reward Scholarship) offer free community college tuition to high achieving high school kids. The program in NJ has gone through some change, The Philadelphia Inquirer’s Jonathan Lai reported, but students at the top 15% of their classes still get to go to school for free.

Hearing from some STARS kids in that article, what’s amazing is how much smarter kids can be than their social-climbing parents. Bright Eastern High School student – where I went! – Caitlin Hale, who attended Camden County Community College, said, “People were shocked when I told them I was going to Camden County. It’s not the name you’re going for; it’s the learning.” Of course, Obama discussed a similar national community college movement; we’ll see how that fares.

Financial decisions about college may be frustrating because we operate in an information-poor zone. But there are resources. For instance, you might check the College Affordability and Transparency Center:, there, among other things, you’ll see how institutions are subsidized. The College Board has interesting college pricing information here: Damn, I hate magazine/newspaper school rankings/lists, but some might help you do that rare thing: Gather what your student’s experience, both during school and post–graduation, will be like. Business Insider’s The 50 Most Underrated Colleges In America” is such a piece.

People are tromping not so much blindly as uncritically into college. It’s a commitment, and you might want to think long and hard about why college is the next step — in fact, that may be the best thing you can do.

Scott Warnock is a writer and teacher who lives in South Jersey. He is a professor of English at Drexel University, where he directs the University Writing Program. Father of three and husband of one, Scott is on two local school boards and coaches all kinds of youth sports.

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6 Responses to “The mysteries of college costs”

  1. No worries Scotty ole boy, I heard Obama was going to make ALL college free!
    And sure, Ivy schools would be nice, but really, the point is just to get them out of the house for 5 years. Yes, 5. What’s the rush? Who cares where, just go!

  2. Change has to happen the old stodgy Universities are like every other big old business afraid to change. They’re too worried about protecting the English professors and Western civ doctors. Start running them like a business, get rid of the old dead wood bring in programs for today and the future. Once you leave the land of Domino’s and Miller light draft it’s learn as you go and learn fast or your gone. College is just a bullshit filter. I’m one of 7, all college grads, one of us is still in the field he went to college for. Three successful business men in our area never went to college Richard Pierson- Pierson Construction, Norcross you have to be connected in blue collar democrat politics but HS grad, PJ Whelihans Pennsauken high grad. The American dream is alive and well just have to go get it.

  3. While I try to keep the discussions open about the future, I don’t really have a concern that college does tend to pop up more often than trades or military. We talk about experience, expense and try to keep the perspective on the long run instead of “you have to do A, B or C for the rest of your life.”

    But for some unknown reason Drexel comes up over and over… :)

  4. If you can get them in, let them learn to live on ramen, coffee and chewing gum. They will get a REAL education then and learn to appreciate home. Ha Ha Ha.
    But really, you can’t worry about it to much in advance. Going to college is a very fluid situation. Their are so many factors that are constantly changing. My only advice is don’t blow your retirement on their education. Good Luck!

  5. I didn’t go to my “best” school even though I was accepted–my father’s alma mater, Tufts University. Dad refused to let me because he refused to file for student loans–from a blue-collar background, he’d worked himself up into a white collar career and was too proud to take a handout. Tufts that year was the most expensive school in the country: it was twenty-nine HUNDRED dollars a year. Can you imagine that.

  6. Surely there is a second installment coming…How tuition dollars go to actually *educating* kids?

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