Recently, we were at Indiana University-Bloomington, filming "Ten Steps to College with the Greenes" for a national PBS show. During five days of shooting, we had the opportunity to engage with live studio audiences comprising Indiana high-school and middle-school parents and their children. During two evenings of question-and-answer sessions at the conclusion of our 10-step presentation, we heard loud and clear that the anticipated cost of college, and the prospect of incurring significant debt in order to educate a child, has become overwhelming. What struck us the most about the remarkably representative families was the commonality between their concerns and those of families we speak with across the country.
The tired battle cry of recent political campaigns, "It's the economy, stupid," has come full circle to confront local and national leaders as tuition at public institutions has risen by double digits due to declining revenue sources in the state coffers. At the same time, virtually every private college and university has raised its tuition and room and board rates because of the magnitude of loss of income from its endowment funds. Even the wealthiest institutions-those with endowments of more than $2 billion-are facing sizable budget deficits this year and next due to large losses in investment income on which they depend so heavily. A recent report of the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education ("Losing Ground: A Status Report on the Affordability of American Higher Education," May 2002, www.highereducation.org/reports/losing_ground/ar.shtml) confirms what educators and parents of college-age children already know: Middle- and lower-income families have had to allocate an ever-larger portion of their income to college tuition and living costs. While financial aid has increased by 13 percent over the last 20 years, state school tuition and fees have risen by 107 percent. Both poorer and middle-class families are now required to double the percentage of their income to pay for a single child to enroll in a public institution. Upper-income families may appear to be in the most comfortable situation, spending only 2 percent of their income on education. However, this cohort of families typically considers private colleges for their children. But with the uncertainties of the job market and the 5 to 6 percent increases added to an already staggering price tag, even many of these parents are worried about their capacity to commit to a four-year private college education that can add up to $120,000 or more. A report this year from the Advisory Committee on Student Financial Assistance (Empty Promises: The Myth of College Access in America, June 2002, www.ed.gov/offices/AC/ACSFA/access.html), which counsels Congress and the U.S. Department of Education, warns that more than 400,000 college-qualified low- and moderate-income high school graduates have already been prevented from enrolling in a four-year college due to financial strains.
In our opinion, a confluence of factors in our economy is creating a problem that is greater than any we have seen in the past. November 2002 numbers from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (go to www.bls.gov/home.htm) reveal an unexpected increase in unemployment in the workforce to 6 percent, the highest rate since 1994. Yes, a majority of the jobs lost are in the manufacturing and low-end service areas, but there is always the concern for the spiral effect that can occur. As a large number of workers either lose their jobs or fear they could, consumer spending declines, thus slowing down economic recovery. We have heard from a large number of employees in white-collar and executive positions that they fear for their jobs as corporations and financial institutions cut back across all levels to reduce losses and attempt to balance their budgets or show a profit. As for present college graduates, the prospect of lucrative employment options is gloomy indeed. Opportunities in the technological, financial, and engineering fields have come to a halt after the boom period of the '90s, and many college graduates are without employment or are forced to take positions in lower-paying fields. We are all aware of the rise in educational loan obligations graduates have incurred, the average approaching almost $20,000. No wonder many young graduates are living at home, and their parents are asking why this is happening or why they are being asked to help make loan repayments.
It's no wonder so many parents are worrying about how they will be able to afford to send their children to college. The word of the moment is anxiety-defined as "a painful or apprehensive uneasiness of mind usually over an impending or anticipated ill." The anticipated ill is the mounting debt that families are asked to take on by borrowing for college. Bottom line? We can confirm from our conversations with the families in the Indiana studio audiences, and with a cross section of families across the country, that the choice of which college to attend next year will be greatly influenced by the cost and the prospect of taking on too heavy a debt load. Sadly, for many poorer families, the choice may not even be which college, but whether to enroll at all.
Based on our exposure to large numbers of families in the midst of applying to colleges this year, we have several pieces of advice to offer admissions officers:
Don't assume that your customary yield on admitted applicants will hold up, as you select your incoming class of 2007. You are most likely to find a greater number of students making their selection on the basis of the cost factor. Additionally, given the ease of the Common Application, online applications, and uncertainty over admissions decisions, students will be applying to more colleges than ever this year.
Be prepared for increasing requests for financial aid package reconsideration from those candidates given an award. High-stakes negotiating by parents is the likely scenario, come April and May. And, given the continuing Early Decision pressures at institutions that utilize these plans (and the sense among financially needy applicants that an Early Decision commitment prevents them from comparing aid offers), expect that most of the neediest applicants will continue to apply for regular admission.
Anticipate that many of your peer schools will use discounting in the form of academic awards at a greater rate than in recent years, to persuade middle- and upper-middle-income students to enroll in their institutions. The increase in such merit-based awards, and the pressure to keep up with peer institutions to attract strong students will put pressure on the need-based aid budget, tuition levels, and the endowment draw.
In the incoming class, representation of minority students and others from non-traditional families is likely to drop; make your senior management aware of this sooner rather than later. These families are under the most financial pressure, and are least able to absorb tuition hikes and loan burdens. To maintain or improve diversity on your campus, you will not only need to seek out such applicants and encourage them to apply, but also ensure that their aid packages are bearable.
Keep the geographical factor in mind, as you weigh which applicants to admit. A significant number of families are considering "distance from home to campus" a significant criterion in selecting a college. They consider this to be one cost-containment variable they can control. Since the large majority of students attends college within 100 miles from home (let alone within 500 miles), your core local market will be most likely to enroll in the fall.
In an almost eerie forecast of today's economic environment, Ralph Waldo Emerson, the nation's moral conscience of the 19th century, stated, "Pay as you go is the only safe rule of private affairs." It is fairly obvious today that our government, with the cooperation of higher educational institutions, has discounted this conservative rule of behavior in favor of requiring families to obligate themselves and their children to large and larger debt loads for the sake of a college education. We do believe that a college education today is more valuable and important than ever, in terms of its foundation for a lifetime of learning, and its impact on an individual's long-term earning capacity. Still, we must ask, "When will this financial spiral end?" "Will it end?" and "Will rising numbers of students and their parents simply resist or refuse to attend college?" What do you think? We'd like to know. Write us care of this magazine at: email@example.com.
Howard Greene and Matthew Greene are independent education consultants, and the authors of the Greenes' Guides to Educational Planning. "Ten Steps to College with the Greenes" will air nationally on PBS in March; please check your local listings. The Greenes have produced a pledge program as well as a regular video presentation and an interactive DVD featuring interviews with college admission officers from over 25 institutions, for distribution through PBS, schools, and libraries. For more information, please contact the authors at firstname.lastname@example.org, or head to www.greenesguides.com or www.pbs.org.