College affordability still a major concern for families

According to a new study, 85% say they will be challenged to pay for higher education in 2021-22. But there are strategies colleges and universities can take to help.

A modest percentage of students have been expressing uncertainty about pursuing postsecondary education, but a recent poll done by College Ave Student Loans shows that 93% of families with undergraduates said getting a college degree “was more important than ever.”

That number offers a bit of solace for many colleges and universities looking for silver linings during a tumultuous, expense-filled, uncertain time. However, there is a catch, and it’s been something that has been gnawing at the purse-strings of families for more than these 11 roller-coaster months: Affordability.

More than half of the 1,000 individuals in the survey done by Barnes and Noble College Insights say they don’t know how they’re going to pay for it. The pandemic has made juggling their finances far more difficult, with 85% bemoaning that the upcoming fall academic year will pose more of a challenge to them than previous years. So much for silver linings, right?

“The pandemic has presented new obstacles for families, yet families are incredibly resilient and determined to help their child obtain a higher education,” said Joe DePaulo, Co-Founder and CEO of College Ave Student Loans.

They’re giving it the old college try, anyway. According to the survey, more than half say they will dip into their savings to help defray costs, although only 17% admit they will be able to pay for it fully through those accounts. Another 45% say they will take out more student loans. More than a quarter of parents say they’ll take out loans themselves. Those numbers add up to more than 100%, so do the math: they’re considering more than one option.

That may not be markedly different from previous years, but the pandemic has brought their expenses, job losses, and unsteady wages front and center.

Costs and considerations

At some point, a family’s strategy for paying for higher education might not be enough or sustainable, especially over the course of several years. They likely will need colleges and universities to provide additional assists, or they’ll be considering alternative options. For existing students and new students, that could mean choosing lower-cost institutions, opting for public universities over privates, starting their journeys at two-year colleges (although that didn’t play out last year), or stopping out altogether, as happened in the fall of 2020.

It’s why many institutions chose in the past year to get a bit more creative, cutting tuition and fees and even offer more in terms of aid. Southern New Hampshire University boldly gave away a year of tuition free plus threw in a $10,000 discount for Year 2 to new students. Cleveland State University offered 2-for-1 tuition to new students, and Willamette University offered a 20% drop in tuition.

And yet, families surveyed overwhelmingly said they were still surprised by the high costs of tuition and fees (81%) and room and board (77%). Most said activities fees and supplies also were more expensive than they had thought.

More than 65% of families said they found it challenging to find college scholarships. And two-thirds of families said they didn’t know where to turn to find resources to plan and pay for their education.

So why is there such a disconnect between families and institutions when it comes to costs and available aid?

Providing help to families

Colleges and universities struggling with retention or enrollment likely have done a lot of soul-searching and analyses to change those trends. Here some basic potential ideas that might help lead to bigger and bolder strategies:

  • Be more transparent about pricing when it comes to tuition costs and fees. Ensure that information being presented on campus websites and to prospective students are also being allayed and updated on websites that students and parents are expected to frequent, such as U.S. News and World Report.
  • Consider lowering tuition to defray costs for students, which will truly help them but not the institution. Or they could simply lower that tuition number and then lower discounts as well (which won’t make it more affordable to students but may get more students to consider attending since the perceived tuition cost is lower). Colleges that do either again should be able to explain why costs are what they are.
  • Be very clear in all financial aid documentation and dialogue what those offers are to students, spelling out the differences between grants and loans, as well as private scholarships. Also consider providing institutional aid in addition to private scholarships to entice students further. No matter what, all prospective students should receive a complete breakdown of costs of their tenure at the institution.
  • Promote to all students and parents the importance of annual filings of FAFSA forms, with reminders of deadlines on social media, websites, texts and other forms of communication that will reach them.
  • Consider lowering fees and other costs on campus. Many institutions cut fees for activities that have not been occurring during the pandemic. Can the institution go a step further?
  • Initiate further strategies and potentially seek more institutional aid to assist lower-income students, students of color and those with disabilities.
  • Encourage the use of e-books and open educational or free resources by faculty to offset traditional costs of printed materials for students.
  • Be proactive and public with any positive changes being made to let students and parents know the institution is providing assistance.
Chris Burt
Chris Burt
Chris is a reporter and associate editor for University Business and District Administration magazines, covering the entirety of higher education and K-12 schools. Prior to coming to LRP, Chris had a distinguished career as a multifaceted editor, designer and reporter for some of the top newspapers and media outlets in the country, including the Palm Beach Post, Sun-Sentinel, Albany Times-Union and The Boston Globe. He is a graduate of Northeastern University.

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