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The Trouble With College Finances

September 27, 2018
By Terri E. Givens

The Trouble With College Finances

My undergraduate years at Stanford University were a struggle for me -- not academically, but financially. As someone who was a low-income, first-generation college-goer, I am painfully aware of the financial issues that students face when they arrive on a college campus.

Financial aid has changed a great deal since I started at Stanford in 1983, with many more options for scholarships and loans, as well as new programs for first-generation students. I doubt many students get lost trying to cash their checks as I did on my first day dealing with the bursar’s office. However, in many ways, it is the same. I watch students go through the same struggles that I did, paying off the fall semester with the spring semester’s grants and loans, and waiting to pay off the spring semester with the wages they have earned working full-time during the summer.

My parents never paid their share of my tuition bill, so I worked extra hours above my work-study. One year, that extra work led to me losing my Pell Grant. I had no idea that could be an issue. I made sure I turned down the Pell Grant in the future, so I could work enough hours to cover my bills. Today, I wear my Stanford class ring every day as a reminder of my perseverance that got me through in four years despite the constant struggle, often working as many as 30 hours a week. I was lucky that I had relatively minimal student loan debt that I was able to pay off before I started graduate school.

As I have worked throughout my career with first-generation and low-income students, I know that financial issues start much earlier, when making choices about where to go to college, dealing with the FAFSA and trying to understand financial aid offer letters. In the last few years, I have been volunteering with several organizations that work with first-generation college-bound students, and I have heard many stories of students struggling with decisions about where to attend college not based on best academic fit but on where their families can afford to send them without taking on large amounts of debt. One organization I work with found that their students had a gap of $15,000 between their financial aid offers and the full cost of attendance (that included loans and work-study). A study by New America and uAspire found that the average gap for a student with a Pell Grant was $12,000 and was as much as $8,000 even at the most competitive colleges.

Parents struggle with trying to match the dreams of their children with the financial realities of college, and that is not made any easier by the letters that students receive from colleges explaining their aid packages. The study by New America and UAspire calls for a federal mandate for standard award letters to avoid the current confusion caused by nonstandard language and, in some cases, not even using the word “loan.”

Some of the students in the organizations I work with didn’t get the final information on their financial aid packages until after they had to decide on a school in May. In a recent exchange on Twitter, I heard from a colleague who had a student withdraw from her college in mid-September because of a late change in fees and a shift in her financial aid. Of course, it’s too late to transfer to another college for this semester. Over the years, I have had many students start the semester late due to holds on their registration because they were behind in paying their tuition and fees, students who couldn’t pay for books, and students who were homeless or couldn’t pay for food.

Companies like Edmit are trying to educate parents and students on the real costs of college -- giving them the ability to compare the value of one college to another. (Disclaimer: Although I am a consultant, I’m not being paid by Edmit.) It’s not a perfect tool, and it’s important to look at other factors such as academic fit when comparing colleges. But it’s helpful to know the financial impact of attending one college compared to another.

I am currently working with my own high school senior on the college application process, and I have been disappointed that there hasn’t been more of a focus on financial aid and planning until the start of his senior year. Those of us in education who work with high school students and their parents, as well as higher education institutions, need to do more to help with the financial side of college. It is a crucial issue for retention and completion, with many ways to approach it that could improve outcomes for all sides.

I saw a first step toward this with a meeting between high school counselors, college admissions officers and representatives from area colleges last spring that started to look at some of the issues around financial aid letters and transparency. We talked about having meetings to interpret such letters for students and helping students be more proactive during the FAFSA process. These are small beginnings, but it will take this and more to improve the odds for college success.

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