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).
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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.

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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 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.

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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.

36 thoughts on “SHELL GAMING, PART I”

  • There are people of modest means who look at the $100 or so application cost and just give up. That may as well be $100,000 to them. Those in the know realize that it is worth asking for a waiver. Most schools will offer one, but this isn't published in an obvious place nor is it common knowledge. This comes up again and again in forums.

  • When I applied back in the 1990s, I was surprised to find out that schools must actually share information with each other about what is being offered to the prospective student. I got a phone call from one school that referenced what I was being given by another school and they told me they'd beat it. (The unfortunate flipside of this was that when one school decided that they had miscalculated and reduced my grant, the other school followed suit.)

  • Ooh, I know the answer to your cliffhanger question but I can't wait to see your presentation of it.

    Ditto 100% everything you've said here. There's a similar issue with grad school (viz, for academic grad school you shouldn't be paying *anything*, especially in a technical field but even in most nontechnical fields, notwithstanding the nominal "tuition") so whenever I have a student who is even slightly considering grad school, or who should be, I make sure to pass along this important fact, because they almost never know that.

  • I don't know, my sense is that there are less in the way of "general discounts" than one thinks. Seems pretty common for schools to offer B-tier students (good but not the best) acceptances but with no financial aid attached (grants I mean, loans you have to repay shouldn't be dignified with the term "aid"). Sure you can come to our expensive school, just as long as you can borrow every cent of the tuition. Accept a whole bunch like that, knowing that most won't be able to attend but the ones that do will help your bottom line.

    A second, even worse approach is to offer some grants for the first year, but then nothing for succeeding years, so that once you are committed to a school the aid disappears.

    I also pretty strongly disagree that there is any great competition for 1st Gen students in the first place. If your main acceptance process is 90% biased against such students (it is) and then you have some remedial program where you give them 2% extra financial aid, that's…. not evidence that you're falling over yourself to bring those students in.

  • Colleges also seem to be going through some soul-searching about foreign students, who often pay full-freight if they're from a wealthy country. The throttling of visas, and loss of income from these students, can have the indirect effect of reducing the subsidies available to US applicants.

  • Anecdata; the coworker with a master's degree (married to an RN with a BS degree) sent his youngest to a top-tier school to study…art. More than $250k in debt later, the kid is still unemployed at 28, and he's on his soapbox ranting about the outrageous cost of college. I'm guessing this $75k/year school didn't offer his darling any kind of financial aid.

    My youngest graduates from a state school this week. Both my kids were solid-but-not-phenomenal high school students and got no fiancial aid either, but the $10k tuition for our highly-ranked state school is nothing like the tution for top-tier schools.

  • Do people actually pay for college themselves? My parents never looked at the price of any colleges I applied to because it was always (correctly) assumed Stafford was lending me whatever Pell couldn't cover. Whenever I hear a parent talking about how they can't afford to send their kid to college I wonder what time machine they stepped out of.

  • Lots of folks also don’t know to negotiation the purchase price of a mattress or how to negotiate effectively the purchase price of an automobile. Lots of traps out the with gotcha capitalism.

    While some argue that college loans aren’t truly “aid,” they at least enable matriculation and attendance. Problem is that, like other sectors of the economy, lousy credit (at excessive rates) is offered far too easily — and in this case with absolutely no collateral. Call it opportunity cost if you need a a euphemism, but graduates often end up hostage to their college loans. It’s a credit bubble poised to burst like the mortgage bubble did. That’s the new normal, what is called the credit economy: inflate those bubbles and watch them pop one after the next.

  • At the private university where I work, more than 50% of the undergraduates pay full freight. We might be on the far end of the bell curve on this, but I'm pretty sure there are lots of private schools where full freight is paid by a surprisingly high percentage of students. I *wish* that the fancy private schools competed more for first gens and other underrepresented groups.

  • Davis X. Machina says:

    I teach in a mill town-without-mills in northern New England, and this problem is endemic. The lack of experience within families really creates a two-tier system, and there are people who like it fine that way.

    Maine has a nice state program that LePage keeps trying to kill, METS (Maine Educational Talent Search) that does campus visits, helps kids with the process, squares away waivers, etc. The income ceiling is pretty low, though, and only certain targeted schools qualify. It's part of the Federal TRIO initiative, which limits how much damage one governor can do.

    There are people of modest means who look at the $100 or so application cost and just give up.

    Free-or-reduced-lunch pretty much qualifies you for SAT/ACT testing waivers, and that in turn yields 4 free applications. Waivers also go out for filing on line, through the Common App.

    At some schools — this is profit center, but at a lot of them it's not an issue…

  • @jjack; because my parents refused to help me get through college, I always vowed that I'd help my kids. We saved up $X for each of them to spend on higher ed, the rest was up to them. They both managed with $0 in student loans by going to (wait for it) schools they could afford.

  • Hey, Ed; the PBS Newshour is running a series on first-gen college students. I think they're copying you!

  • joel hanes says:

    jjack, student loans are a mug's game, and parents who care about their kids should try to avoid letting the kids take them out, even if that means the parents endure some difficulty paying for college for the kids.

    That "undischargeable in bankruptcy" bit (for which I think we can thank Joe Biden ?) is just evil squared. Want to ruin your kids' lives? Help them take out $50,000 or more in student loans.

  • Oh! Oh! I know! I know! Pick me! (Hand fully in the air, bouncing up and down on seat!)

    Ok, I'll wait until you tell us.

    I have to criticize your characterization of "2-year options". As a former adjunct of "those places" and mother of a daughter who did that, then transferred to and graduated from UCLA Summa Cum Laude, CC's are GREAT options for the first two years of 200+ students in gut courses for…well, just about everyone. Classes are smaller (teachers actually know your names and can answer questions), the teachers are fully fudded and actually WANT to teach (as opposed to grad students or teachers who just want to get back to their publishable research) and at reputable CC's the level of instruction is the same as that taught by the Unis. (We would regularly get with the profs of the local Uni – to where our students would transfer – and check to ensure that we were teaching the same material at the same level). And, of course, they are way cheaper. Rump may not know what CC's are for, but those of us in the know do.

    Methinks, perhaps, your Elite College snobbery might be getting in the way a bit here?

  • @ Davis X. Machina:

    I've been in the only two towns like that I can think of in Maine. Is it Bowdoin/Brunswick or Bates/Lewiston-Auburn (or as I like to think of it, "Newark on the Androscoggin". I went there at 6:45 on a tuesday night and the it was scary quiet.

    Brunswick, well, in Brunswick there was 22 Lincoln, run at that time by somewhat famous cook, Sam Hayward. He was generous with his time, after service. And then, when I got back to my garrett, I would be lulled to sleep by the drone of the P-3's lifting off from or returning to NAS, Brunswick on their never ending quest to flush ruskie subs or shadow guided missile frigates.

  • @katydid; @joel hanes;

    I absolutely agree with you in principle but as far as practice is concerned I would say that a lot of points raised in Ed's May 14 post (Ten Percent of Crap) overlap with paying for college. I can absolutely understand why my parents didn't have savings to pay my way through college for me, and given that their generation is better off than my generation…well, I just don't see the parents paying their kids' way becoming any more common.

    Again, not at all to say that you're wrong in wanting to avoid that because you're absolutely right…I'm painfully aware of the scourge that is student loans…but my point was that having the ability to avoid it these days is more of the exception than the rule.

  • @jjack; with all due respect, a huge part of the problem that I see is high school students insisting they're going to their dream wonderland school no matter what the cost, and the spineless parents nodding right along. Like my idiot coworker who took out debt for more than a *quarter of a million dollars* so that his youngest could go to an out-of-state private school in a very expensive city to study…art. A field that's not known for providing a living wage after graduation. Now he *and* she are bitterly complaining about how terribly unfair it is that she's got student loans to pay back and she's not even employed.

    I went the same route as another commenter here; my kids started taking community college classes while still in high school, transitioned full-time to community college after high school, then transferred to (different campuses of) the state school to get their undergrad degree. One is graduating this year with an undergrad, the other's finished a master's, and we're not completely broke and they owe nothing in loans.

    Both were B students in high school, and neither was a sportzball star, so financial grants weren't an option. We paid full freight, but we paid affordable freight.

  • Also @jjack; I understand where you're coming from about unaffordable college. My parents promised me back when I was in high school that if I stayed on the honor roll every quarter in high school, they would pay for my college. The summer before my freshman year, they decided nah, nobody paid for THEIR college, so they weren't helping their kids. My parents are Baby Boomers; when they went to college, in-state tuition was completely free. When I went to college, minimum wage was $2.30-something and the first semester's tuition was $1800. I busted my ass to graduate without having to take out loans, which is why I vowed if I ever had kids, I would never require them to work 50-hour weeks just to get through school.

  • @April; One of my charities is my county's community college that gave a phenomenal education to both my kids. I agree with everything you said; the teachers were there to teach (instead of grad students or research professors) and the class sizes were smaller. Additionally, changing areas of study is less costly at community college. Sometimes what people think they want to be when they're 16 isn't what they want to be when they're 20.

  • @Katydid:

    I think you've shared before that your folks had bracket adjusted politics but offering to pay and then withdrawing it–bad form.

    My parents stopped paying my "book bills" when I was in 4th grade and never put a nickel into my education after that. My three older sisters got either scholastic or other scholarships or my dad paid for most of it.

    He told me after taking my older brother out to get his license the day he turned 16 (417 days before I did) and then, when I was 18 telling me, that if I wanted a license and car I needed to have the price of the car, my first year's college tuition and a year of paid up insurance. That was maybe a year after he slapped me when he was drunk and I told him if he did it again, I would kill him.

    So, I never owned a car till I was out of the AF @ 23 yo and he died a week after I bought it, of cancer.

    Ten years or so later I understood, finally, that he saw, in me, his young self and didn't want me to be the failure he saw himself as. So sad. I have pretty much the same agency as any being in terms of making a decision and then trying to make it work when it wasn't a good decision. I knew that when I was six or seven.

  • @Demo, that sucks. Could it also be that you were the youngest and your parents were pretty much done with parenting and not really concerned about "fair" or "not fair"? I only bring that up because when I was in high school, I dated a guy who was the youngest of 10 kids. The parents were so very done with parenting by about the sixth kid, and the younger ones pretty much fended for themselves.

    If your dad was just trying to stop you from becoming him, that also sucks because you were a whole different person.

  • Katydid:

    5th of 11. My dad was worn out by then. He died at age 54 of a particularly nasty cancer. If there was such a thing as hell, he'd have gotten by on time served while still amongst the living. He did the best he could and while I could never form a bond with him while he was alive, I think of him every day now–and have done for nearly fifty years.

    My parents, through some sleight of hand got all 11 of us through school (HS at least except for MG who never finished
    because he was more like me than I am) I loved and honor both of them for their sacrifices but I was never the dutiful son or genius that they could be proud of–I've always been okay with that.

    Thank you for your kindness.

  • Jack of Hearts says:

    I have so much to say about this topic I'm not even sure where to start. I'll start with my high school school guidance counselor. My mom went to the same high school, and she had him as a teacher in the 60s. I was an A/B student, one of three kids raised by a single mother. There was no money. We could barely afford school pictures. There was scant history of college attendance in my extended family. No one was buying me a car much less paying for college. Nobody knew how to fill out college applications. I taught myself how to do my own taxes, and my mother's too. I started working part time at 14 and just assumed I would just have to start working full time after college. My guidance counselor tracked me into vocational training and told me absolutely zero about financial assistance and grants for college. There was no internet then. What the hell did I know about what was best for my future at 17 years old? My mom did the best she could, but her parenting style was rather laissez-fair. More "don't make waves, make the most of what you have" than "be ambitious and go after life." At 25, I had the good fortune to work with a woman who was going back to school, to community college, who badgered me to do the same, showing me the ropes. Thank god for her and for community college.

    Fast forward to 2015. I finally had the balls and financial means to move and finish my BFA in Chicago. I attended an online informational session for my college of choice and at the end they provided a surprise waiver for the $65 application fee. They also ended up waiving their requirement for SAT/ACT scores because I had an existing AA degree. Taking the SAT is another huge hurdle for low-income families. To summarize my experience in art school, there was a significant international student population, especially females from China, paying full price I'm sure, and I felt like the whole system was most definitely not geared towards non-traditional students. Professors/Financial Aid/Student Activities Planners tended to orient their efforts towards those who have just left Mom and Dad's nest and don't know how to adult yet, not those who have been on their own for ten or more years and have different needs and concerns. Like "how do I re-enter the workforce after two years of being a full-time student, I can't afford to take an unpaid internship." The professors were the most adaptable to my needs. While I learned an incredible amount about subject matter, the social aspect was entirely awkward. Colleges need to do a better job of supporting non-traditional students if they want to get their dollars.

  • Jack of Hearts says:

    Oops. That should read "…assumed I would just have to start working full time after high school."

  • @ Jack of Hearts:

    My HS "Misguidance Counselor" conspired with my class advisor to CHANGE my college choices on the application for the PSAT/NMSQT from Yale and Nebraska U to Catholic University of America and Omaha U (now UofN @ Omaha). The story I got from them was, "Well, there's no way you will EVER be accepted by those schools." We might have argued the point except I didn't even know about it until after the paperwork was submitted.

    I have no idea what my scores were–an older sister who knew people who knew people said that I had embarrassed them by getting the 2nd highest raw scores in my glass (only 108 students). The explanation that she gave was a little different from theirs. She said that they were mortified that me–a student who was failing/had failed all math courses and anything that had a strong math component like 2nd sememster biology or a chemistry course.

    The same counsellor, btw, conspired with my dad to have me take both chemistry and algebra II after I had failed algebra I and geometry (actually carried pretty much an F from the first week or two in both courses and had several "0" grades on tests) and was in the midst of failing 2nd semester biology (that teacher, Coach–very smart guy and an asshole–for reasons of humanity I didn't know he had, gave me a D where I should have had an F). I don't blame my dad. He knew I was smart and prolly believed the idiot who told him that I would just "get it". He may have actually been influenced by his older sister (a nun* in the same order) who also knew I was smart and possibly thought I was dogging those classes.

    In the event, I got no offers from anyone.If you graduated HS in Omaha and could afford the (even then) dirt cheap tuition–$180 tuition and fees in fall of 1967 you could go to collgege at the local college. One semester and part of a second (I paid for the 2nd, knowing I was not going to finish–if you dropped out they would CALL the draft board to tell them) and just killing time till I could enlist in the AF.

    * My favorite aunt by any measure; a wise woman trapped by her one bad habit–belief in GOD-RCC V1.

  • Shouldabeen:

    "a student who was failing/had failed all math courses and anything that had a strong math component like 2nd sememster biology or a chemistry course had the temerity to think that HE might actually be deserving of an education."

    I wish, btw, that I had gone to school to learn carpentry.

  • Jack of Hearts says:

    @ democommie

    That is nuts for your counselor and advisor to change your application like that. Especially without even one discussion with you about your college choices. I went to high school in a small conservative town, and a lot of girls still just went to college to get their MRS degree before they became housewives and started pumping out babies. Maybe my counselor thought he was doing me a favor by guiding me into secretarial work.

  • Huh. Demo and Jack of Hearts, you just made me think back. I have absolutely no idea if my high school even *had* a guidance counselor. I certainly never spoke with one, nor did anyone I know ever say anything like, "I saw the guideance counselor and…" My great fortune was having friends who were all going to college who showed me the ropes, because my parents certainly had no intentions of showing me the way.

    I can see how 17-year-olds with no family or friends in college would struggle with the whole process. At 17, you simply don't know what you don't know.

    BTW, the PBS Newshour segment spoke about various schools (UCLA was one) who have programs for first-gen college students. They give them mentors and put them in dorms together and have them meet with counselors–the one in the snippet said she, herself, was first-gen college and was able to empathize with the struggles of these students.

    Obviously this works better for students who are English-speakers. April's students might struggle even with these supports.

  • The way that electronics is proceeding, things like realtime translators (also moore aqqurette, two!) so, it's all good–until the batteries or the power sources run out.

  • @Demo; I have friends who are Dutch and their English is pretty darned good, but occasionally they use online translators and the results are hilarious. They assure me when I resort to online translators, the result is equally hilarious for them.

  • @Katydid:

    Yeah, I use translators for various slurs (mostly for "
    Le roi orange de la ville de merde"). I usually switch directions 3-? times until I get something that remains the same when flipped and flopped. Doesn't mean it's right just that it's consistent. Latin and Chinese are a bitch to work with.

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