Earth to Ed­u­ca­tion De­part­ment: Fam­i­lies need real help with the cost of col­lege

The Washington Post Sunday - - BUSINESS - Michelle Sin­gle­tary

With my 17-year-old daugh­ter headed to col­lege, I tried out the new col­lege score­card tool launched by the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion af­ter the pres­i­dent’s State of the Union ad­dress.

I was not im­pressed. Some links didn’t work, and cer­tain in­for­ma­tion I wanted wasn’t there. Over­all, the tool just didn’t do much to help our fam­ily fig­ure out which col­lege would be the most af­ford­able.

The tool, which you can find at white­house.gov, is too gen­eral when it comes to the real price of col­lege, what the aca­demic in­dus­try calls the “net price.”

“Net price is what un­der­grad­u­ate stu­dents pay af­ter grants and schol­ar­ships (fi­nan­cial aid you don’t have to pay back) are sub­tracted from the in­sti­tu­tion’s cost of at­ten­dance,” the score­card tells us.

De­signed by the De­part­ment of Ed­u­ca­tion, the score­card in­cludes av­er­age net price data for in-state stu­dents, the school’s grad­u­a­tion rate, loan de­fault rates and me­dian bor­row­ing. Oh, and the data used for the av­er­age net price are for the 2010-11 aca­demic year.

Hon­estly, given what I’ve been ex­pe­ri­enc­ing and af­ter talk­ing to other par­ents, the col­lege score­card doesn’t ad­dress our most press­ing needs. What would help more would be an in­ten­sive ef­fort by the ad­min­is­tra­tion to bring down the cost of col­lege so fam­i­lies wouldn’t have to bor­row so heav­ily.

Dur­ing a re­cent col­lege tour, we saw one par­ent be­come very dis­heart­ened be­cause her daugh­ter, a good but not great stu­dent, wouldn’t be able to af­ford col­lege — and she was a state res­i­dent vis­it­ing a state school. If a de­gree is a ticket to a mid­dle-class job, then we’ve got to do some­thing about bring­ing down the price of at­tend­ing. Even with a lot of merit and need-based schol­ar­ship and grant money avail­able, there isn’t nearly enough to go around.

My daugh­ter Olivia, who has ex­cel­lent grades, ap­plied to four col­leges: two in-state schools and two out-of-state. She was ac­cepted at North Carolina A&T, Tow­son Univer­sity and the Hon­ors Col­lege at the Univer­sity of Mary­land at Col­lege Park.

The Univer­sity of North Carolina in Chapel Hill turned her down. The UNC re­jec­tion no­tice was nice enough, an “it’s not you, it’s us” re­buff. “With many

more can­di­dates than spa­ces, we can­not avoid mak­ing thou­sands of dif­fi­cult de­ci­sions,” the vice provost wrote.

My heart sank when Olivia didn’t get into UNC. But the penny pincher in me was jump­ing for joy. We’ve saved for her ed­u­ca­tion, but not enough to pay the $43,848 an­nual out-of-state price for UNC.

Across the coun­try, fam­i­lies are wait­ing for let­ters that lay out how much money their kids might get to fi­nance their ed­u­ca­tions. And when I say money, I don’t mean loans. We are wait­ing to see if our kid gets a grant, schol­ar­ship or work-study of­fer from the col­leges. If that money isn’t of­fered, many fam­i­lies will opt for loans. We won’t bor­row. We hope if our daugh­ter gets aid, we can use what we’ve saved to help her fi­nance an ad­vanced de­gree, which is in­creas­ingly re­quired for many fields.

Roberto Rodriguez, spe­cial as­sis­tant to the pres­i­dent for ed­u­ca­tion, said the col­lege score­card is meant to be part of a suite of tools that fam­i­lies can use to help in the col­lege-se­lec­tion process. You can find the tools by go­ing to the Na­tional Cen­ter for Ed­u­ca­tion Statis­tics’ Web site ( and search­ing for Col­lege Nav­i­ga­tor.

A use­ful tool I’m look­ing for­ward to is one the ad­min­is­tra­tion an­nounced ear­lier — a fi­nan­cial aid shop­ping sheet. The ad­min­is­tra­tion has got­ten more than 600 col­leges to agree to pro­vide im­por­tant fi­nan­cial in­for­ma­tion to in­com­ing fresh­men, start­ing with the 2013-14 school year. As part of their fi­nan­cial aid pack­ages, the schools said, they would dis­close sev­eral key pieces of in­for­ma­tion: They will be clearer about how much one year of col­lege will cost; they will do a bet­ter job of dis­tin­guis­ing grants, schol­ar­ships and loans; they will es­ti­mate monthly pay­ments that grad­u­ates would ex­pect to make on fed­eral stu­dent loans; and they will sup­ply in­for­ma­tion about the per­cent­ages of stu­dents who en­roll, grad­u­ate and re­pay their loans with­out de­fault­ing.

The shop­ping sheet is a tool the ad­min­is­tra­tion should de­mand that col­leges pro­vide. Right now it’s vol­un­tary.

As hard as she tried, Olivia also didn’t make the cut for some very lu­cra­tive schol­ar­ships. Those re­jec­tion let­ters said much the same as UNC’s let­ter — that the com­pe­ti­tion is just too great.

At least UNC saved us the trou­ble of break­ing my kid’s heart. The re­jec­tion al­lowed us to ex­hale be­cause the school’s net price cal­cu­la­tor told us not to ex­pect any fi­nan­cial aid.

Now we wait, like so many oth­ers, hop­ing we get some money from the schools that do want our daugh­ter. Read­ers can write to Michelle Sin­gle­tary c/o The Washington Post, 1150 15th St., NW, Washington, D.C. 20071. Her e-mail ad­dress is sin­gle­tarym@wash­post.com. Com­ments and ques­tions are wel­come, but due to the vol­ume of mail, per­sonal re­sponses may not be pos­si­ble. Please also note com­ments or ques­tions may be used in a fu­ture col­umn, with the writer’s name, un­less a spe­cific re­quest to do oth­er­wise is in­di­cated.

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