Earlier this summer I shared with you that we would working to make smart decisions about colleges for both of the kids! With one finishing an undergraduate degree and the other finishing high school next spring, the fall of 2017 will leave us as empty nesters!
In Choosing the Best College, I shared with you how some things have changed since I searched for a good college back in the 1980’s. But from my own experience as an advanced graduate student and in my experience teaching at the college level, good doesn’t seem to be good enough for many people. There is a big emphasis on kids choosing the best college, sometimes without enough regard to the costs to both the student and the family.
In the follow-up to that post, I talked about managing the information overload from colleges to choose the right college – not necessarily the “best” one. I also shared my daughter’s ranked list of goals for choosing a graduate degree program. The decision matrix we created was included to help show you how we compared the options she was considering.
Two months into the college search, we have found two major flaws in our thinking. And each of them could have turned out to be VERY EXPENSIVE. What it comes down to is a couple of assumptions we made.
Assumption #1 – Don’t consider out of state public colleges because they charge crazy high tuitions.
At my daughter’s state college this year, the in-state tuition is about $7,000 and the out-of-state tuition is $16,500. It’s $9,500 a year more if you are from out-of-state. This state college offers VERY few scholarships and it is difficult to get in because of the great reputation and “reasonable” price. (OK – I get that it doesn’t seem reasonable to many – but when you compare it, it is still much less expensive than many schools).
We would be looking at my son attending a similar state college, but he wants to go to school further away. And back to assumption #1 and the crazy high tuition – when you look it up, you would certainly see what most people are talking about.
For example, West Virginia University’s in-state tuition is about $8000/year and the out-of-state is $22,500 – WHOA! A $14, 500 difference because we live in NY.
BUT… WVU offers merit scholarships! Right now my son is eligible for a Scholarship Distinction Level 2 award of $8,000/year. That brings the cost of tuition down to $14,500. That’s getting better, but if he can score one more point on his ACT’s he can be a Level 1 Scholar for an award of $14,000/year. That brings the tuition down to $8,500. It is still about $1,500 higher than our own state school but there is still more to it.
It’s important to use a tool that all colleges are required to have – a net price calculator. This is how my son found out that WVU offers merit scholarships. Keep in mind that the net price calculator may not be totally accurate either – but it is a rough estimate that gives you more information than just looking at all of the fees separately.
When we did the net price calculator for a year at WVU (which includes tuition, fees, and standard housing, meal plan, books & travel) it was $33,600. And when the $14,000 scholarship was deducted, the cost was estimated to be $19,600/year.
When we did the net price calculator for the in-state school my daughter attends, with all of the same costs from above – the estimate was $22,200/year.
Based on these rough estimates, my son could save over $2500 his freshman year by going out-of-state to a school he wanted to go to…
And he is certainly motivated to take his ACT’s over again to score one more point to earn the $14,000/year scholarship rather than the $8000 one!
He even said – that could be a $18,000 savings from one point! ($6000/year x 3 years – he plans to finish in 3 years, the same as his sister – because of all the AP/Community College credits they earned in high school). So nice to see some early financial literacy from a 17-year-old!
Lesson #1 – Don’t just listen to what other people say. What they tell you or what you “hear” is simply information and don’t assume it’s 100% correct. Do your own research too. And if you are looking at colleges, use the net price calculator and search for merit (or other) scholarships that might be available. Out-of-state may be cheaper than in-state and it will be a win-win for both of you!
Assumption #2 – Well that college is just too far from home.
When beginning to consider possible graduate schools for my daughter, we started by looking at schools with accredited programs.
The goals she developed helped to narrow the list of colleges. One of the goals was “reasonable” driving distance from home. We made a list of the schools that seemed reasonable (about 5 hours or less) and did research, followed by some college visits as described in this post. She settled on two options after the visits and we thought our search was likely over.
But when my son visited WVU with his dad, they came back and asked why my daughter hadn’t considered it for grad school. (They happened to go through the department she would be in on the campus tour).
I’m pretty embarrassed to admit it, but when we looked at the accredited list – we totally skipped WVU. West Virginia just seemed like it was way further away than it actually is… but it is only a half hour further than one of the colleges we visited.
So why does it matter? My daughter is really interested in the graduate program at Penn State, but the tuition for the program at WVU is about $22,000 less. And WVU just added a PhD program that she may eventually be interested in. She decided to go visit and after they reviewed her grades and GRE scores, she is likely to get an offer for a large merit scholarship to cover tuition (and more) or a graduate teaching assistant role that could pay her full tuition and provide a stipend.
Penn State has a few opportunities to reduce tuition too, but at our tour – the department chair shared that they are very competitive.
There is a chance that our bad assumption could have cost my daughter (and us) up to $90,000 in a worst case scenario. If she ended up at Penn State with no financial assistance and could have had full tuition and stipends at WVU – the $90,000 difference could have been a reality with all expenses added in. It wasn’t likely to be that high – but it could have been. And that’s just scary to consider.
We won’t know what is going to happen with her graduate work until early 2017 when she applies, is accepted and receives offers (hopefully!) from the colleges. But the “distance from home” assumption was a huge lesson for our family. She’ll likely seriously consider WVU even though it is further away – for just the $22,000 difference in tuition if she gets no aid from either school.
Lesson #2 – Our assumptions limited our options. It’s worth it to spend a few extra hours to really investigate things that matter (and cost) this much! Three or four hours, google maps, and a spreadsheet could have helped us to document important information on all of the accredited schools for the program she wants. Saving $22,000 (or much more) for four hours of research – is more than $5000/hour for that extra effort!
Luckily these were things we learned before we made a bad decision for either child and that’s why I wanted to share them. Can you think of anything you assumed that could have cost you tens of thousands of dollars in terms of college? Or even costly assumptions about other topics? Let’s help each other out!
Calculator & Map Photo Credit: PaulaPatracinio and YaroslavB at freeimages.net