Can the Middle Class Afford College?

I invited David Montesano, one of my favorite independent college counselors, to write this guest post after I heard him talk about the challenges that middle-class families face in paying for college. Montesano is the founder of College Match Educational Consultants in Seattle and other cities.
By David Montesano
The rising cost of college is nothing less than a crisis for America’s middle class families. As an admissions counselor, I see first-hand how talented and qualified middle-class students are being priced out of higher education. For example:

  • A top student from one of the best public high schools in the U.S., a national merit scholar and winner of a prestigious science award, can’t afford to go to MIT.
  • A valedictorian from suburban Seattle with loads of extracurriculars can’t afford a top 25 university.
  • A young actor with excellent regional theater experience can’t afford to attend his dream school NYU.

I could go on and on with examples of great kids being denied the opportunity to attend a top college, simply because they can’t afford it.

Spiraling College Costs

The fact is, college costs keep going up, with no end in sight. According to The New York Times, the price of college tuition and board rose 439% between 1982 and 2007. Skyrocketing costs are the rule at America’s top colleges, where the price tag now averages a staggering $50,000 a year. Unfortunately, of the top 100 schools, only 20 are more-affordable public institutions.
These costs put college out of reach for most middle-class parents. It might be possible for them to pay $15,000 to $25,000 a year for their children’s college education, but anything more risks their own financial survival.

Un-Democratization of College

Sure, loans can make up the difference. But how much debt is healthy? Do we really want 22-year-old graduates to be saddled with $40,000, $60,000 or even $100,000 or more in debt just as they start their adult lives? Most experts say that students should owe $20,000 or less for a bachelor’s degree.
With more and more families unable to pay the high cost of a top college, and increasing numbers of students unwilling to go massively in debt, we’re seeing a dismaying trend take shape: the “un-democratization” of higher learning, in which our nation’s best schools are populated almost exclusively by the super rich. It’s a kind of segregation that only further separates the very wealthy from the rest of society.

How the Middle Class Can Afford College

So how do we get more middle-class students into top colleges?
Fortunately, more and more top schools are recognizing that their lack of income diversity is a serious problem. One strategy for middle-class applicants is to identify those schools that are making efforts to recruit less-wealthy students and see what assistance might be available.
Another strategy that I recommend is to pursue merit scholarships. For academically talented students, these awards can make a big dent in the tuition bill.
Also, students should keep an eye out for scholarships that might be a particularly good fit for their skills, interests, or background. For example, students who are interested in serving as an officer in the armed forces should explore ROTC scholarships, some of which can cover the entire cost of college tuition. Focused scholarships such as ROTC’s can also mean less competition.
Finally, students should consider applying to the 20% of top colleges that are public. I know, it’s not easy giving up on the idea of attending that “dream” college, with its manicured lawns and small class sizes. But with public schools costing as much as 50% less than private colleges, the savings can be huge. And believe it or not, students have wonderful college experiences even if their school isn’t an Ivy.

Bottom Line:

Given the reality that colleges won’t be lowering their costs anytime soon, today’s middle-class students have to get creative about attending a top school without breaking the bank. By looking at all of their funding options, while remaining open to the idea that their best-choice school may not be their first choice, middle-class students can still afford a great college education.
Lynn O’Shaughnessy is the author of The College Solution and she also writes college blogs for CBSMoneyWatch and US News & World Report.

More on The College Solution:

Anatomy of a Stingy College and a Generous One
College Cost Calculators: Getting Wildly Different Answers

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  1. Both of my kids had to settle for state schools vs private. For my second child, I thought for sure that we would get some aid since we had one in college (out of state school) and the second child was accepted to private schools as well as MIT. Most of the priv schools gave some aid in form of Merit schoarship but MIT only $2k work program and then a small loan. So like how the heck were we to pay for two kids in colleges looking at almost $90-100K for one year.
    My husband does not make much over that and we have one child at home and a mortgage. As it is, we have not been able to save from the paycheck since our first started college. So that meant taking anything out of home (and our home is already worth less that what we paid) or from savings which is partly retirement since he does not have a 401K at work. And yes, we did save but with college rising (and did not plan for private) it killed us. this is so sad and breaks by heart so much. We never lived beyond out means and drive cars with almost 200k miles. No elaborate vacations. etc.

  2. When my daughter was born, I started her college fund. I funded it every year out of my paycheck. We did not buy flat screen TV’s, jet skis or fancy cars. We funded her college education. She is two years away from college and I am confident that her college fund is fully funded. She will not have to borrow one penny or try to find financial aide to finish a 4 year degree. That’s how one affords college. Education, in my family, was THE most important thing. Not what clothing we wore, or how many cars you drove or that you even had a computer. We are not rich. We are slightly upper middle class. It’s really up to her as to how she uses that college education but my hope is she will put it to good use.

    1. Thanks Max for sharing your story. That’s certainly inspirational. My husband and I did much the same thing to save for college. We started saving when the kids were babies and we did without a lot and lived in an unfashionable neighborhood where the housing prices were more reasonable and we drive a 12 and 13-year-old cars. Slow and steady saving is the way to go!
      Lynn O’Shaughnessy

      1. Thanks Max and Lynn for your practicality on this – it is putting my mind somewhat at ease.
        Ours is a similar story as yours. We were, however, , but we were, honestly, not practical enough to direct her exclusively toward the good public school but to the prestigious private schools, which give an excellent marketing pitch about how their degrees have more “value”.
        So now we have a “reckoning” – telling her that we can’t afford her dream school (U Chicago) but can afford U Minnesota, where she can actually make it through without debt.
        So, hard work and practicality on the part of the parents (including us) and our daughter pays off hugely, as does not believing the hype of these expensive private schools.
        Thank you again for your wise comments. Our daughter is disappointed now, but will be infinitely relieved when she gets out of college and has financial freedom, while some friends see their choices limited because they are mired in debt.

      2. Like Max, we also set aside the appropriate amount of money to pay for our daughter’s education. However, the cost of college has risen exponentially since she was born and quite frankly we don’t feel the top colleges are worth the money they are demanding. As an added frustration, while filling out the FAFSA we see now that had we not saved all these years then she would have received a substantial amount of aid.

    2. Max,
      We too started to save when our son was born. Now we have over $80,000. Our son got into UC Davis and guess what, it costs over $35,000 for next year. And that $80,000 pretty much makes it impossible to get any financal aid.

      1. Hi Trish,
        Thanks for your note. Actually, the $80,000 you saved in most states would not prohibit you from getting aid. That’s because the FAFSA formula allows families to shelter quite a bit of money. Financial aid determination is chiefly determines by a familiy’s income. In the state of California, families that make more than $80,000 a year generally don’t qualify for any need-based aid. Sad, but true.
        Lynn O’Shaughnessy

        1. That FAFSA formula said we should be able pay for a little over $11,000. We make less then $80,000. The student aid packet offered our son less then $4,000 in student loans and offered us more than $20,000 in PLUS loans at 7.9% with interest starting at time of distribution. He will not be going to Davis. He will be going to Cal State Long Beach or Northern AZ. Both cost $10,000 to $12,000 LESS then UC. It is pretty sad when you can go out of state for less then in state.

  3. Another interesting angle to consider is how tuition and fees from professional schools (e.g. business, law, etc.) are funneled into the larger universities. Tuition for these programs is skyrocketing with little value add for the actual students. I’m still shocked to see how much programs cost today compared to even a few years ago when I was a student. Scary trends with so many kids taking out student loans.

  4. Most colleges and universities have greatly expanded their payroll and their capital development budget (buildings) in past three decades. Many new layers of administration (and less likely faculty) were added to the payrolls. Availability of student loans, and willingness of students (and their parents) to commit to those loans, allowed these institutions to increase tuition, room and board, and fees at percentages far greater than the consumer price index. While relative prosperity and employment security was still present for most middle-class households (more likely, the greatest aspirational consumer of higher-education – upper-middle-income households), college cost-burden wasn’t really questioned. Now many families simply can’t afford those same college costs without jeopardizing the overall long-term financial stability of the household.
    Several of our friends are those middle-management administrative directors and managers at universities. Their job descriptions seem important, but their role is relatively redundant and without serious accountability. They describe further bloated bureaucracy above them, with large six-figure salaries, perks, free tuition for off-spring, subsidized housing, etc. All on the backs of their students’ parents. ..

  5. I think the solution to this problem is to question the value and necessity of going to college in the first place. Seriously. As a 33 year old living in LA with many friends ages 20-25, I can tell you first hand the post college reality is very frightening. You’ve got kids in the beginning of their journey of life with $50,000 in debt… for a degree in History, or Biology, or Art. And absolutely no realistic job prospects related to that degree.
    Middle class parents and students should spend time calling potential employers and temp agencies in their related fields before freaking out about paying for school. As a college grad who has made no use of his prestigious honors degree from a top 10 school… I can tell you there is more honor in learning how to be self educated and a self starter than there is in an honors degree.