SHELL GAMING, PART I

There is a lot of talk in higher education these days about first generation college students. There is an ethical component to emphasizing this (to reduce, or at least not perpetuate, inequality by keeping college the province of kids whose parents are graduates). There is also obviously an economic component to this. As well-off people have fewer kids, colleges need to target a broader range of potential students. That pool now consists, for almost every college or university in the nation, of essentially anyone who has graduated high school.

One area in which 1st Gens are at a distinct disadvantage is in understanding how The System works. Specifically, they and their parents tend to take the information they find at face value. If XYZ.edu says the tuition is $45,000/yr, mom and dad somberly tell Junior, "I'm sorry, but we just can't afford that" while steering the kid toward the cheapest options – low-tier state schools ("directionals") or 2-year options.

People somewhat more savvy to the process would understand that the stated price is not what one pays. Well, almost nobody pays it (more on that in a moment). But universities have what is called a discount rate – the average (choose your preferred term: grant, scholarship, merit aid, financial aid, etc.) given to their student body. And especially at private universities, that discount rate can be *significant*. Which is also the case at universities where getting 1st Gens is an institutional priority. Which is also ALSO the case when the students in question are African-American, Asian, Hispanic, Native American, etc. etc.

Discount rates are often substantial. 50% is not uncommon. 50% plus a bonus for having excellent grades or test scores or other application criteria is not either. 75%-plus for 1st Gen students who excel and belong to underrepresented groups is not rare at all. Not every college will offer these deals to every student, but a student who applies broadly (common applications help with the costs here) to 10-15 schools is very likely to find this kind of deal somewhere unless grades are really abysmal.

And non-college parents don't know this in many cases. 1st Gen students don't know this. They let the stated cost scare them out of applying. They don't realize that applying to – no specific reason for giving these examples other than that they are recognizable private schools – Villanova or Butler or DePaul or Drexel there is not a guarantee but no less than an excellent chance that the actual cost could be only 1/4 or 1/3 or 1/2 of what they see on the website.

You could argue that even with the discount it is beyond what many families can afford. That is a story for another time. The point is that decisions are made based on bad information. In reality, three things alter the math in ways that (no offense intended here, as my parents didn't know this either) unsophisticated consumers do not understand.

1. Every school wants 1st Gen college students, for ethical and practical reasons
2. Since everyone wants this pool of students, schools have to compete to attract them by offering incentives
3. Those incentives can be, and for the very best students often are, significant if the student is willing to consider a range of options

Make no mistake, these same incentives and discounts are available to students who aren't 1st Gen. The only difference between any other applicant and 1st Gen students is that the former is more likely to understand that, at many perfectly good schools, an applicant with good credentials is likely to get grants, merit scholarships, and the like. Public schools may have limited flexibility based on state legislative preferences, but at private universities it's hard to find many students truly paying 100% of the stated cost – "full freight" students, in the biz.

This raises an obvious question, of course: If few students are actually paying the stated price, why not just lower the stated price?

Perch yourself on the edge of your seat. Part II tomorrow.