A Message to Parents: How Families Contribute to College Costs

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It's early April and most students have received word from the colleges and universities to which they applied. They - and their families - have reached one important marker on a road traveled that had detours, bumps, and occasional bad weather. But, the visibility improved and the direction is clearer now.

Congratulations to these applicants turned matriculants. You have (or likely will by the end of April) made an important adult decision. For most of you, it's a good one and an important new beginning.

Yet for many, especially traditional students arriving on campus as freshly minted high school graduates, this decision is also a family one. It's been fascinating over the past several days to watch once again the time-honored ritual of families reacting with pride, relief, nervousness and some dismay over the implications of college acceptance.

Within the range of reaction, the one that always surprises me the most is the grumbling that occurs over the cost of attendance. It's different than the sticker price, although the two are often confused in the mainstream media.

Generally, parents who completed the federal "FAFSA" form take some pride in the size of the financial aid package. The number seems fair to these parents, especially if the mix is weighted more heavily to grants than loans.

In fact, an average student at an independent college or university will repay, for example, about $29,000 in loans in total over a four-year attendance. It's the price of a fully loaded new mid-sized car, with payments stretched out at favorable rates over many years.

It's not a bad gamble - especially if the career centers and alumni networks kick in to predict that employment is likely and the field chosen will support the terms of the loan payback after graduation.

But this is where "cost of attendance" shock diverges from the reality of how the parents prepared for sending a child to college.

There are two factors to consider.

The first is that fewer families saved for college than most would expect. Data crunchers make a good if misinterpreted case periodically in the media about how saving can work against families. More pragmatically, however, life gets in the way of an orderly savings plan sometimes. The brutal post recessionary reality is, of course, that many simply could not afford to save.

Yet Americans can save - and sacrifice --when necessary. That's how they scraped together the down payment on a house, paid for their child's braces, and took vacations.

Here's a question. Isn't providing a college degree - in which students and their families should be active participants - a moment for sacrifice? For those who can afford it, is it really prudent to load up on the loans to cover tougher decisions that should have been made much earlier?

Second, many colleges charging high sticker prices also tout the residential learning experience that informs college learning. As one friend e-mailed me recently, parents and grandparents often remember cramped dorm rooms, war surplus steel furniture, gang showers, mystery meat, and no air conditioning in the academic buildings. Consumer preferences and expectations have shifted dramatically within a generation.

Within these preference shifts, there is sometimes an expectation that comes with a college degree, based upon family circumstances. Students from the comfortable middle class and wealthier have their own bedrooms, access to a car, and are equipped with various levels of technology. They have food preferences and "concierge" expectations.

As expected, these families who pay the most set consumer preferences at the colleges and universities that admit their students. They want suite-style arrangements, with single room options and an adjacent bath for their children. They anticipate upgraded technology, wireless facilities, vegan options, and on-site, 24 hour psychological counseling services. Their children expect excellent athletic workout facilities and a Starbuck's café in the library. Families want study abroad options, robust internships, and personalized attention with low student to professor teaching ratios.

And that's part of the problem associated with high sticker price tuitions. Full-pay families have Ritz Carlton expectations but want them to be delivered through a Holiday Inn Express.

There's plenty of blame to go around. In a system of shared governance, it is dangerous to preach cost control since the impact on an admissions bottom line could be devastating. A more modest path suggests a lack of momentum and places an institution at a competitive disadvantage as the new rock wall arises at the aspirant school.

The two highest fixed costs - labor and capital - are the fundamental building blocks of a residential liberal arts college. There is little discretionary money remaining to contain general costs. The way that we finance American higher education will not continue to permit American colleges and universities to respond to consumer preferences in the same way much longer.

But as parents shake their heads at the size of the check they write on behalf of their child, perhaps they might start by asking themselves: "Are our expectations in line with this check?"

It might give these parents a whole new reason to grumble about high tuition. And they could start first by talking to themselves.