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College Decisions
Erin O'Connell, center, and her mother Rosemary O'Connell, left, follow a group tour through Elon University, Monday, Oct. 13, 2008, in Elon, N.C. It's college-visiting season for the high school class of 2009, which will send the most ever graduates on to college next fall. But the souring economy and dramatic slump on Wall Street are providing a cold dose of financial reality for many families. (AP)

Prospective students follow a group tour through Elon University, on Oct. 13, 2008, in Elon, N.C. The high school class of 2009 will send the most ever graduates on to college next fall. But the souring economy and dramatic slump on Wall Street are providing a cold dose of financial reality for many families. (AP)

It is college acceptance time. College decision time. In millions of homes across America, families are sitting down to look at where sons and daughters have been admitted, where they haven’t, and where they should actually go.

The decision is tougher than ever. The economy is terrible. Millions of parents have lost jobs. Incomes have fallen. So have college endowments and — in some cases — financial aid. Loans are tougher too.

Families have hard decisions to make. And so do colleges themselves.

This hour, On Point: College decision time, in hard times.

You can join the conversation. Is your family having tough conversations about this right now? Parents, students: How are you thinking about the choice of a college in economic tough times?


Joining us from San Francisco is Stephen Yoder, San Francisco bureau chief for The Wall Street Journal. His 18-year-old son, Isaac, will be heading off to college next fall. They write the “Yoder and Son” column about parent/teen money issues for the Journal.

From New York we’re joined by Jacques Steinberg, education writer for The New York Times. He’s lead author of the blog “The Choice” on NYTimes.com and author of “The Gatekeepers: Inside the Admissions Process of a Premier College.”

Joining us from Austin, Texas, is Alice Reinarz, asisstant provost for enrollment at Texas A&M University in College Station — one of the top public universities in America. This year a record 26,007 students applied, and 8,100 are expected to enroll.

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  • Sam E.

    I’ll be listening to this hour intently. Even though, it’s for grad school I’m going through the process of making college decisions right now. I thought for sure that I’d be going to one school but then five days before seat deposits were due I received a scholarship I wasn’t expecting from another school I had been looking into. Before the scholarship the two schools were near dead even in terms of cost now the one I had thought I was going to go would be about twenty thousand more.

  • http://glennebrooks.com Glenn


    I would sure like it if colleges would start re-examinging their campuses and programs to cut costs. Most have a very high class, country club atmosphere, replete with health clubs, selective dining, and professional sports. I don’t pay for this in my private life. I don’t really want to pay for a luxury lifestyle for my college kids. It sure seems there is great room for improvement here. Any word on that?

  • http://bluecollarandproudofit.com/ Lisa

    I have two small children, boys age 5 and 7. Their father and I are in the high-tech profession and highly educated.

    My question is: Does getting a college degree still pay off on a lifetime basis if it costs more than $200,000 (and that’s before interest on student loans)?

    My husband and I are, frankly, sick of the rollercoaster of the college educated professional lives we were told were the best thing for us.

    Would my sons have happier lives if I encouraged them to take up a trade, or become a firefighter?

  • http://wbur.org Laura Geggis

    Because of the economy, we directed our son to apply to a public university, where he could get a good education, and we could afford to help him with the costs. Unfortunately, he chose a major that is not offered in our state public unversities. So he applied to out-of-state public universities where we thought we could get a discounted regional rate. Now that he’s been accepted in his major in an out-of-state university, we’ve been told that we have to pay out-of-state tuition for the first two years. That means that this public university is going to cost us $40,000 a year for two years before the regional rate kicks in. $40,000 a year! That’s a private college education!
    And now, financial aid has been returned, and we been told that we can get loans for everything, but no other help. It is so discouraging!!!

    Laura Geggis

  • Ann Christie

    As a single mom of three with no hope of help from the ex or family for help with college I’m shaking in my shoes listening to this hour. I have a high school junior and freshman, and 5th grader. I’m selling our house due to a decrease in income… so I can’t do a home equity loan.

    I know my kids ‘deserve’ to go to college, and have the grades, sports ability etc. I don’t know how much debt I want them to take on, or for that matter, if I can take on more debt.

    Shaking in my financial shoes is getting to rattle me to my core.

  • Drew

    Drew in Salt Lake City

    Dear Tom,

    This topic is always upsetting to me. My family has been committed to public universities for generations. We have become leaders in many different fields, including academia, law, medicine, and government. None of us has ever taught or received an (earned) degree at a private institution.

    The reality is that with all of our education, of just as high quality as private “ivy league”, we are still not allowed in that upper echelon reserved for the “elite”.

    Private higher education, especially “elite” education is merely a way to purchase access, no different from bribery or political contributions. What is disturbing is that over the years it creates an aristocracy of the very kind we rejected in forming this nation – based upon class, contacts, cash, and inheritance.

    Importantly, both sides of the political spectrum take part in this repugnant myth. Compare both of our “common-man” presidents of late – and all of their advisers. See how many Texas A&M vs “ivy league” degrees there are.

    Good to be giving another comment.

  • Elizabeth

    Please remember the GI Bill. Is it too much to expect our children to pay for college through service to their country, just as we have done, and as our parents before us have done? The educational benefits for service members and their families are phenomenal, and the life-skills and training, in addition to a jump start on a career in which the student will have full benefits from day one are unbeatable.

  • Doshi

    I disagree with Yoder that there is no single piece of advice for every family. There is:

    Unless you are paying cash, consider the return on investment (based on intended major) and the long term implication of using debt to finance college education. Period.

    I would also add that parents and students need to be honest about what they are really trying to get out their college experience. Is it prestige or contacts, more job-related practical skills, or a general liberal arts education. There may be more ways than expensive 4 years college programs to do this.

    In “Strapped,” Tamara Draut has written about the part that excessive student loan payments play in why America’s 20 and 30 somethings can’t get ahead.

    I worked three part-time jobs through undergrad to keep the debt low. I think students that take responsibility for their own education work harder.

  • Krystal

    I am a 24 year old second year student, my husband is as well. We decided to go to community college first in order to allow us to work during the day. This fall we plan to transfer. Because of our age and being married, we are non-dependants, we have not had to pay for any of our college education thus far. I encourage others to think about this option.

  • http://www.lillarogers.com Lilla Rogers

    It will become all about apprenticing and practical training. Also, American entrepreneurial spirit will create alternative colleges at realistic costs. No fancy gyms and sushi cafeterias. I offered classes to artists here in my studio to help them get great work as illustrators (New York Times, national magazines, advertising, book, licensing, etc.) See web for more info.
    My art agency is doing very well, by the way. It’s all about the great art, not degrees. In fact, I usually don’t even know where my artists have gone to school.
    Thanks for a great show.

  • Edward Besozzi

    As a former financial aid administrator, the formula used to calculate financial aid need is NOT complicated-it is based on percentages of adjusted gross income and assets. The bigger question is why can’t parents and students come to the realization that they should be sensible and go where they can afford, and not institutions that will put both parties in exhorbitant debt.

  • Jocelyn Charles

    My daughter never expected me, a single mom, to be able to make more than a minor contribution to her college expenses. Now accepted, and faced with minumum loans (after receiving the maximum federal grants ) from $15,000 to $23,000- she simply doesn’t know what to do. Is it worth to go the the most expensive, most selective school – who gave her a large academic scholarship, ( the difference in loan amounts will be only $3500 between that and a state U) – when she isn’t sure what she wants to study or what career path to follow? She is reticent about going to one of the state schools for the same reason. What kind of job could she get should she decide to take the year off and work or go to school part time? She’d need a car and all the expense that entails and then, when she goes to file the FAFSA again next year, her income will decrease the amount she will be eligible for. She must be one of many stuck in this situation, and is frankly, very anxious about it.

  • Brian

    My economics prof made an interesting observation about financial aid and college tuition. Colleges can charge students at a level they are able to pay (capturing all of their “consumer surplus”) since they know their finances. It would be a akin to telling your car salesman your salary when negotiating the price.

    So the large inflation in tuition is related to the effort to make colleges more egalitarian.

  • Pat Houlden

    As a parent sending my second child to college next year I can assure you that financial aid is not forth coming for a “middle class” family. Private colleges are evolving into places for the very rich or poor and academically talented. No consideration is being given to those with a middle class income who lost college savings in the market downturn.

    My daughters college (Hamilton College) in New York increased tuition 22% over her four years with no increase in aid.

    I believe if Congress passed a bill mandating that colleges spend 5% of their endowmentswe would be better off.

  • Juan

    My Question is, if a citizen pays taxes which directly fund public institutions, why must the citizen pay tuition? Other societies seem to make higher education (education in general) free, or at no cost to their citizens. Why in the “wealthiest” country in the world, can we not do that.

  • Shelagh

    In my opinion there is a difference between attending an Ivy or similar level school (Stanford, etc) and attending a small liberal arts school in the next tiers down. The benefit from attending Harvard et al. is not just the education, but the contacts and the opinion others have when viewing a Harvard resume. Public colleges and universities offer tremendous educational opportunities, including for a “liberal arts education.” Spending significantly more for basically the same education leaves the student and parents with a tremendous debt load that may severely limit the options for both in the future.

  • Michael

    Give me a break if things I am 45 years old and still have 15,000 in student loans from my own education to payoff. I still feel my biggest mistake was not considering the return on the investment. Only a true academic would say that collage is not about a monetary return on investment. In this world it is a fact your level in society and quality of life is directly tied to your income level. Academics and those running collages are out of touch with the rest of society if they really believe that the cost of education needs to be tied to the potential payback of that education.

    No money is not everything but try living without it. People say money can not buy happiness but the lack of it can be directly tied to all types of sorrows and hardships so money alone may not make you happy but not having it can sure make it hard to be happy.

    What kind of world do we expect when the cost of a education does not equal the financial value of that education. Academics might say you can not put a price on knowledge ah but that is just what they do when one has to pay for it. And what kind of life can you have when you start out already in debt. Don’t forget the job market is a global market jobs can be out sourced to other countries and US companies can just move to where they can get the trained workers they need at the lowest cost. Many european countries offer a collage education paid for by the state and many produce more graduates trained in math and sciences and engineering then we do in the US and those in the US are graduating with a mountain of debt so demand higher wages.
    If I am a company looking to hire designers and engineers I am not looking for liberal arts degrees I am looking for engineering degrees. And if you graduate with a mountain of debt to pay off you do not have the luxury of then searching for what field you want to work in and take a unpaid internship you need money now not just to cover your cost of living but to pay back your debt.

    If we are serious in this country about education and competing on the world stage we must reconsider public education stopping after the K to 12 and extend that on into collage and vocational training as well.

  • jeffe

    Michael your right, college should be free or very cheap if you have the grades to get in. Don’t forget less people in Europe, depending on the country of course go to college or university then in this country.

    Germany is a good example as students know by the time they are in junior high (not sure what it’s called there) if they are going on to the Gymnasium or going to be guided to a technical college. Here is an interesting thought, Germany has a trade surplus of about 6.9B euros.
    The US has a trade deficit of $36.0 billion.

    One might ask what does this have to do with education, well the Germans still make stuff the world wants, we don’t’ make enough of anything anymore. Except grain and soybeans.

  • John

    Two years ago I told my son he could go anywhere he wanted. The economy was good and my business was booming. A few months ago things changed dramatically. We looked at all the options and decided on UCONN. We live in RI and UCONN offered a less expensive package than URI and a host of other universities. Good grades earned him some grants, but without them we could have never afforded any of the tuitions.

    We were fortunate that he had good grades and strong letters of reccomendation. It will still be a struggle but within reach.

    I feel like this may be the worst possible year to be applying for college, in a time full of unexpected turmoil.

  • Dorothy

    I listened to the show last night on my way home from work. I winced when one of your guests said a college education may take 6-7 years because of budget cuts some of the universities have been forced to make. We have a high school junior who’s starting to look at colleges. We’ve saved for his college education since he was born, but how can you be financially prepared for 7 years of tuition bills?

  • http://www.collegeplusretirement.com Tim Higgins

    SmartMoney Magazine had a great article in January “Why the Ivies Aren’t Worth It”. As a follow up to a lot of the Return on Investment discussions above, it ranked the colleges nationwide. The first 19 colleges were all public universities (UMASS 18th), with Princeton being the first private college at #20.

    In-state public colleges are a great deal. However, the key for the student is to focus and try to graduate in 4 years!

  • John

    All of this talk about “return on investment” and the prestige of a degree, etc. tend to cheapen the true value of “higher education.” Higher education is not something that you can buy, nor is it something that is well-represented by the reputation of the school you went to or even the list of degrees after your name. There’s been some talk of the “liberal arts”, but even that is not the complete answer.

    If you think of college as an investment, don’t go. Or, if you do, don’t make your college experience about that. “Higher education” is, first and foremost, about learning to think about a diversity of different subjects and experiences in increasingly complex ways. If you just want to get a skill set or just want a certificate to put behind your name, go to a trade school. I’m tired of undergraduates (and now even graduate students) who act like colleges are businesses selling a product that they are investing in. No — colleges are providing guidance for students to follow their own path in discovering all sorts of new ways of learning/understanding/thinking. If you couldn’t teach yourself just about every “skill” you learn in college, you shouldn’t be there.

    And yes, that means that exposure to a variety of ideas and disciplines is more important than a streamlined “degree.” I’d rather hire an engineer who was also required to take rigorous classes in history or philosophy or music or whatever than one who only took science or math courses, and I’d rather have an English major who took some serious physics or math courses. I guarantee that most people who do those sorts of things as an undergraduate are much more valuable to the workforce (and society at large) than people with graduate degrees from more elite schools who have never thought about anything outside their own field.

    The more people who think in terms of “investment,” the more colleges will measure their own value in terms of money, and the more expensive programs become. If you actually care about getting a higher education, go to a school you can afford and which emphasizes broad educational values, try to always think beyond your “requirements”, challenge yourself and always set a standard higher than anyone else asks you for, and keep doing that after you graduate. Your friends may get a better first job because they have a cooler or more prestigious degree, but within 10-15 years, you’ll pass most of them, because you actually have learned to think and can keep learning, instead of depending on credentials and nepotism.

  • John

    Oh, one other thing — so many prestigious schools have begun to put full courses and curricula up on the internet. MIT started this initiative a number of years ago now, and many schools have started to follow suit. You can often watch lectures, download course packs, as well as exercises and exams with keys.

    If you actually care about knowledge, you can do all that yourself, perhaps with the help of some educated friends or a tutor you can hire for much less than tuition at a prestigious school.

    So, the main value of actually attending such a school is the community, something you can use to broaden your education even further. If you can’t afford such a school, go to a lesser one, but do the exercises from MIT or somewhere anyway. Many professors at other schools will be happy to help you and talk to you if you show interest in their subject and want to do more advanced work. Again, the benefits of taking such an approach will be more long-lasting, and you will be rewarded in the long term.

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