Monday, April 10, 2006

Who Should Pay for School – The Student or the Parent?

From Po:

College admission letters are in the mail, perhaps headed to some of your homes. Soon, the question of “will we get in?” will be replaced by “how will we ever pay for it?”

The New York Times reports today that more middle-class families are telling their children, “Pay for it yourself.” The story twice admits there are no statistics to back this up, so it is basing this trend on the anecdotal observations of financial aid officials at three colleges – Johns Hopkins, UCLA, and Carleton. These administrators perceive a gradual shift of the burden from parent to student.

Is that true? Or is this just The Times fishing for a trend again?

Well, it’s not what we’re seeing in our analysis of the many research reports on this. 83% of all parents plan to help pay for their child’s post-high-school education. Among parents who have been to college themselves, 91% expect to help pay. Even among parents who don’t speak a word of English, 87% of them expect their children to go to college, and three-quarters of those expect to help pay for it.

So when The Times says “more” parents are doing this, it’s not very many.

How to explain this gap between the reality and the perception of those financial aid administrators? Well, parents routinely downplay their willingness to help, in hopes of qualifying their child for more aid. Maybe these pleas of hardship have ratcheted up a notch in their volume lately?

I worry that this story will lead more parents to think their own retirement is a better investment than their child’s education. The article might create the illusion that it’s more socially acceptable to not help their child.

The other question that many parents wonder about is whether great private schools are worth it. Kids from good schools tend to do better financially over the rest of their life, but is that just because they filter out all but the brightest in their admissions vetting?

The Washington Post reported last weekend on a particular study done in the late 1990s that tried to factor out the admissions filter factor. This study compared kids who had gone to 34 colleges. It then looked only at the subset of kids who had applied to elite colleges. In this pool were plenty of kids who applied to the elite schools, but ended up going to state schools. Maybe they didn’t get accepted, or maybe they couldn’t afford it – but they applied.

It turns out that the state-school kids did just as well as the elite school kids.

This was not a long-term study, but it used long-term data. The kids were all freshman at college in 1976, so by the late 1990s they were in their early 40s.

This study suggested that if you are the kind of student who would consider applying to an elite school – with good grades and all – then you don’t actually need to attend.

In other words, going to college makes a huge difference in life – but which college you attend may not matter.

This is a very personal question for me, because when I was growing up this was a constant debate. I attended an expensive and elite high school in Seattle called “Lakeside.” (Bill Gates went there). My mother believed I should go to the public high school in Seattle and attend the University of Washington. If there was an academic benefit to the private schools, it was offset by the warped perspective a child gets from going to school with rich kids. My father believed it was worth it. During those years, I moved back and forth between my parent’s homes, and I always got an earful from my mom. I constantly had to defend the integrity of my school and the quality of my friends. I wasn’t sure why she was harping on it – she wasn’t paying for it (or so I thought).

On the day before my high school graduation, I learned the truth from our high school principal. Neither parent had been paying for it. For three years, the tuition bill had gone unpaid. Behind my back, both parents had squabbled over who should pay the bill. My dad believed my mom was sitting on money from the sale of my childhood house. My mom believed my dad had money. He didn’t. His small company had been going through Chapter 11 bankruptcy. He was strapped.

Unless someone paid the tuition bill, my principal told me, I wouldn’t graduate. I would have to take the GED test that summer to get my equivalency. My grandmothers stepped in and paid the bill.

I had been admitted to Stanford University, with a financial aid plan that brought the cash cost of tuition+room+board down to $7,000 – about two grand more than the University of Washington. I decided I couldn’t attend Stanford, but I didn’t tell my parents. I decided I had to do it on my own. I joined a fraternity at UW that summer and even went to tryouts for the UW varsity soccer team.

Eventually I told my Dad, and he was appalled. He couldn’t believe I was turning down a chance to attend Stanford over a two-thousand-dollar difference in cost. Until that time, my dad had given me extremely little guidance, for fear I would rebel against him and do the opposite of whatever he advised. But he finally told me his opinion – get the very best education I could. I insisted I could not be a drain on the family’s finances, and that he was an unreliable financial backer. He made another appeal to Stanford for more aid, and eventually we brought the cash cost down to the same price as my local state college. It meant working 20 hours a week and borrowing about ten thousand dollars a year through various loans. My Dad never complained once about the cost of school, not wanting me to feel guilty.

When I graduated from Stanford four years later, I lived on Top Ramen and rice and cut my own hair to save money. My dad and I were both able to pay off our share of the loans within a few years. In doing so, we both stuck to the plan, and I found my trust in him again.

Was it worth it, going to an elite school? It may not matter, as the study mentioned above pointed out. What did matter was that my father said my education was important, and I agreed with him – and we made a plan and did it together. We both sacrificed, and joint sacrifice is a unique bond. So whether it’s a public school or a private school, the best part of it is doing it with your parent, together.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

amazing story. this reminds me of when I was in college at Berkeley in the late 1980s. Many friends took out loans and had part time jobs working on campus. Several who did not work on campus had jobs working in the business world. This brought back memories of so many people who felt they had to cram in all of these classes so they could graduate within 4 years and save money.

That is wonderful about your Dad and you working together as a team so that you could go to Stanford!

I wish that I could have worked but unfortunately the world was not quite as enlightened about hiring someone with a profound hearing loss!

5:17 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

It's great that your dad helped you pay for school...but not everyone is so fortunate. Neither of my parents are helping me pay for school, I'm in my senior year and attending a public university. I'll graduate with a BA and $70,000 of debt after my study abroad. I'm also a near straight-A student, but can't seem to get any scholarships. Between working and school, it'll have been 8 years by the time I graduate. I'm pretty sure I'm not an anomaly (since I know fellow students going it alone). Maybe the article isn't so far off? It probably has something to do with how fractured families are nowadays in the US - but that's a topic for an entirely different discussion.

6:51 PM  

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