College Access…For The Upper Middle Class

I write this post not so much for the families who we serve, but instead to all American college presidents, vice presidents for enrollment management, admissions deans, high school principals, and guidance counseling offices.  I hear much talk on college counseling listserves and blogs about access.  Most of this surrounds first generation, underrepresented, and economically disadvantaged students who have millions of advocates in college counselors, faculty, non-profits, and many other educators.  With all due respect to this army of access advocates, I’d like to divert your attention for one – just one – article about the middle class to upper middle class families we serve.

It is these students who have few advocates, but themselves.  It is these students who ultimately pay much more than they can afford for college, and here’s why:  These students are attracted to the Villanovas, the Boston Colleges, the Hamiltons, the Emorys, and the large out of state publics like Penn State, University of Vermont, Michigan, and many more like them.  Most of these schools give limited or no scholarships, and most students in this demographic do not qualify for need based aid, yet the cost of tuition, room and board runs from $45,000-$60,000 per year.

If these families have two children, the cost of educating them can surpass $500,000. That’s a half million bucks folks. Let’s say their family income is $250,000/year, a fairly healthy number.  How do they come up with a check for $59,000 multiplied by 8 years of college? How would you? 

The fact is that, according to a recent Bloomberg study, total college costs have increased by almost 1200 % since 1978.  That’s not a typo.  Simply stated, college costs 12 times more than it did 34 years ago.  Even with the increase of the average family income during that same period, which has actually decreased over the last 4 years, it takes more of a family’s paycheck to pay for college today, than it did 30 years ago.  This is a highly disturbing trend, yet few in the educational establishment are adequately addressing the problem.

Most of the families we work with have saved diligently but have less than $75,000 set aside for college. So the parents take out loans in excess of $75,000 – per child – and the student takes out loans exceeding $100,000. The student then gets a liberal arts degree – or even a business degree (the most popular major for U.S. students), and makes $40,000 per year after graduation.  I’m a big advocate for, and product of, a liberal arts education, but purely from an economic perspective, the return on investment is not even close to what it used to be for the student. And their parents, then must work an extra 5-10 years to be able to pay off the loans and retire…if all goes well.

My clarion call is for college and high school officials, and putative “student advocates” of all stripes to address this issue immediately. Simply stating that “most students pay a net price much lower than the sticker price” does not cut it, because there are millions of families for whom this is simply not the case.

For my part, we will continue to offer affordability counseling to our families, but my question to the aforementioned officials is:  What will you do?