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.
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.