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Admissions 100: When You Think You Can’t Afford College

Insiders Guide To CollegeToday, many qualified students with limited financial means may be unable to afford college. What creative options should they consider?

Scott Jaschik, national expert on higher education: I slightly challenge the premise of the question. Many universities remain very affordable for middle-class families. The media has whipped up a false sense of non-affordability. People hear about the most expensive colleges and assume they’re the only options, or that no aid is available. In reality, many public colleges are relatively inexpensive and many private colleges are incredibly generous with aid.

As for creative approaches, such as a three-year degree or studying abroad, they have very limited appeal. Most students don’t want a three-year degree because it requires nonstop study, exceptional focus, and certainty regarding the subjects or major to pursue; there’s no room for exploration, for changing your mind. Similarly, going abroad is not what most students are doing.

Financially, then, what are today’s high school students exploring?

In general, this year, interest is growing in public colleges and universities. Students are looking for aid in their own states, and, depending on their financial situation, a lot of them may be surprised by how much aid is in fact available.

How should students weigh public vs. private schools?

In tough economic times, people tend to look more at public schools, and, generally, public school tuition rates are lower. However, some of the wealthier and less wealthy privates offer generous aid packages that largely negate that difference. So you have to look beyond tuition costs to the availability of aid and ask: How much do the students at the more expensive colleges actually pay? You also need to look at how long it takes to graduate. At many publics, in tight financial times, as states cut their budgets, courses are cancelled. It becomes harder to get into classes, harder to get time with academic advisors. The average graduation rate may be five years or longer. At residential private colleges, most students graduate in four years. In short, you need to make sure you’re comparing apples to apples because a lower annual tuition at a public college that takes you five or six years may be slightly more expensive than higher tuition at a private that gets you in and out in four.

That said, as important as tuition costs may be, it is far more important for you as a student to find the college that’s a good match academically, socially, and geographically. Start by choosing the colleges where you want to go and where you believe you can get in.

Financially, what is the best way to approach these schools?

Students need to demonstrate that they are truly serious about the particular school under consideration. Right now, many colleges are afraid that students are applying to every school in sight and trying to cut a good deal later. Colleges tend to do more if they feel the student is really serious about their institution.

Colleges also want students who will be a good fit, so be sure to visit the school and take actions to demonstrate your academic, athletic, and/or extracurricular interests. Ask questions that show you’re thinking about the place. Sit in on a class. Visit a professor. Any number of ways may work. These steps will also help you determine whether or not a particular college will really be a good fit for you. College students who move from institution to institution tend to have a tough time graduating in four years—so finding a college that suits you can help you graduate on time and save you money.

Then, when it comes to financial aid, be up front about your needs. Colleges are very worried about losing applicants who think no aid is available, so it is to your advantage to be very specific with admissions officers, saying, “My parents earn $X a year and my sister is at a college that costs $Y. How can I make this work?” This can be done in person, on the phone, via email. And when you receive the college’s figures, be sure they add up. Is there money for books? For travel to/from campus? For food?

Most importantly, don’t take a self-defeating stance, such as “I won’t get in there” or “I’ll get in, but won’t get aid.” That’s not to say that you are going to get in everywhere, or get aid everywhere. But if you’re making intelligent picks about where you want to go, you’re likely to end up with more options than you thought. So be proactive. The rewards come to those who think positively.

Nonetheless, in this economy, isn’t it true that wealthier people stand a better chance of being accepted into a more prestigious school?

Absolutely. Many “need-sensitive” colleges with limited student aid budgets are more likely to enroll students who are able to pay the full tuition. And that’s not the only advantage of wealth. While wealth does not make a high school student smarter, it increases the odds that a given student is academically better prepared for college, having come from a better school system. Colleges are always looking for the students who are most likely to succeed.

Are Jewish students generally perceived as likely to succeed?

Yes. Jewish applicants are attractive because, on average, they’re perceived as good students who come from families that care about and save money for education. Today’s colleges also want a diverse student body. Some of the colleges that are very welcoming to Jewish students are located in parts of the country without large Jewish populations and wouldn’t have been so welcoming a few generations ago. As with financial aid, don’t be afraid to ask. As a measure of the Jewish environment, some students will even ask about services they may not use, such as the availability of kosher food.

Though we’re in a recession and college costs continue to rise, more people are applying to college. How do you explain this trend?

Historically, when the economy tanks, people go to college. Today, thirty-somethings who have lost their jobs as well as current workers who are questioning their job security are applying to schools to retool and build new skills. There’s a difference, though: older students are enrolling mainly at community colleges or public universities, whereas many high school graduates are choosing residential colleges.

Are community colleges still affordable?

Absolutely. Prices do vary by region and by state, but overall community college tuitions are likely to be far less than those of private colleges. In fact, at many community colleges, the required books are more expensive than tuition.

How is the quality of instruction at community colleges?

In many cases it’s outstanding. Keep in mind that community college faculty is there to provide quality, attentive instruction, not to do research. I should caution, though, that, right now, enrollment is outpacing funding and, as a result, class sizes are increasing.

How would you rate the overall quality of higher education in America today?

One of America’s great strengths is its diversity of institutions of higher learning. This is unusual in a global context: whereas in many countries, there is only the large university,

we have institutions large and small, public and private, secular and religious, liberal arts and career oriented. For all the failings of education in the United States, there is good reason why foreign students come here for an education, and why so many countries try to model their institutions of higher education on ours. While every college won’t be right for every student, the range and quality of American higher education remains unsurpassed.

—Scott Jaschik, editor of Inside Higher Ed (, a free daily news service about higher education


Union for Reform Judaism.