June 13, 2021

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Do You Talk to Your Family About the Cost of College?

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Students in U.S. high schools can get free digital access to The New York Times until Sept. 1, 2021.

Do you plan to go to college? Do you have a sense of how much one year of college might cost? If not, take a moment to look up the cost of tuition, room and board and various fees for a college that interests you.

Have you seen older siblings, other relatives or friends go through the college application process? Are you a high school senior somewhere in the middle of the process? What do you know about applying for and seeking out aid to pay for your education?

Do you and your parents or guardians ever talk about how to pay for college and whether they might be able to help you cover the cost? Do you think parents and their children should have honest conversations about the cost of college?

In “High School Grades Could Be Worth $100,000. Time to Tell Your Child?” Ron Lieber advises parents to have the kinds of conversations that would enable students to answer the questions above about financing their college educations. The article begins:

Financial aid is no longer just about what you earn and what you have. It’s also about your children and what they do — and that means that good grades can be worth a whole lot of money.

In the past quarter-century, an ever-growing number of schools — both public and private — have begun using aid as a weapon to try to increase their institutional prestige. In many cases, it is bait for students who can raise the school’s profile in the eyes of the rankings overlords at places like U.S. News & World Report. In others, it’s become so rampant that discounts are necessary just to keep heads in the beds and pay the light bill.

It goes by the name merit aid, and it’s not the same as the more limited academic scholarships of a generation ago. Now, admissions officers often report to bosses with the words “enrollment management” in their titles, and they can spread the money around much more broadly.

“Aid” is a bit of a misnomer, albeit one that we seem to be stuck with. It’s not a scholarship as much as it is a coupon in many cases, one whose value may depend on applicants’ traits ranging from their ZIP code (which can signal affluence) to how quickly they open an email invitation.

But the merit part — actual academic and leadership prowess — can also matter plenty. That means that grades aren’t just a factor in getting into a first-choice school, but also in what you might pay for a residential undergraduate education.

The result is an elaborate parallel financial aid system that can totally upend the psychology of picking a college.

And because nearly all but the most selective schools now use merit aid at least a little, list prices are increasingly irrelevant for most families. Classrooms at public institutions like the Universities of Delaware or South Carolina and private ones like Occidental College in Los Angeles or Syracuse in New York State have become more like airplane cabins, where people often pay many different amounts via extensive menus of possible prices.

Over several years on the road talking to scores of college presidents, faculty members, enrollment deans and families about what we all should be willing to pay for college, I’ve learned how much of a head trip the merit aid system has become.

And just like drugs, you should talk to your kid about it before someone else does.

Mr. Lieber suggests how and when parents and their children should start talking about paying for college:

If you haven’t been talking about money all along, a basic conversation may be in order first, to prepare teenagers to take it all in. Roughly how much money have you saved for college, if any, and how much do you make? You would need to put this on financial aid forms, in any event.

Then, this: What are you willing to pay for college, and where? This is, alas, just as complex of a topic as the pricing system itself. Be ready to explain why you intend to limit it to a certain amount of money (if any) or particular types of schools (ditto).

Now, about the timing. It seems only fair that teenagers ought to know the rules of engagement at the beginning of the game. After all, many teens would be furious if you held this information back because you thought that they couldn’t handle the truth.

So one possibility is this: Have a brief but deliberate merit aid conversation two months into the summer after eighth grade.

It does not have to be an extended chat if a child seems reasonably motivated already. You might simply explain that grades don’t just count for admission these days — good ones can make many expensive schools more affordable. That way, rising high school freshmen can begin to consider what sort of marks they’ll need to achieve and other extracurricular goals they might want to set.

Wait any longer than the start of high school, and the vicious math of grade point averages may not allow them to catch up if they are aiming for merit aid at more selective institutions. And grades and curricular choices — unlike ZIP codes or other demographic information — are something that is mostly within a teenager’s control.

Students, read the entire article, then tell us:

  • Do you agree with Mr. Lieber that the summer before ninth grade is the right time to start a family conversation about paying for college? Why or why not? Have you started to talk about this topic at home? If yes, what have the conversations been like?

  • The article quotes Ashley Darcy-Mahoney on the topic of being honest with children: “Most teenagers want to be treated like adults. And treating them that way, in giving them information about adulthood and adult decisions, is also what they want.” Respond to this quotation. Do you feel ready to know what role, if any, your family will play in financing your college education? What, if anything, do you think Ms. Darcy-Mahoney isn’t taking into consideration here?

  • How much stress do you feel about academics? Does the idea that merit aid is determined in part by your grades and test scores affect your motivation to do well in school? What, if anything, do you see yourself doing differently as a result of reading this article? Explain.

  • What’s one thing you learned about merit aid and the cost of college? What’s one thing that frustrated you when you read this article? What’s one question you now have about the college application process?


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Students 13 and older in the United States and the United Kingdom, and 16 and older elsewhere, are invited to comment. All comments are moderated by the Learning Network staff, but please keep in mind that once your comment is accepted, it will be made public.

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