The True Cost of College

Americans have become acutely aware of the cost of attending college in the past few years. According to popular essay writing service, tuition and essay writing rates had been rising faster than household income even before the recession. Post-recession, income is harder to come by, savings have dwindled, and university endowments, the pool of donations that often fund professorships and scholarships, have shrunk. In a 2009 survey, 70 percent of prospective college students responded that they were changing their college plans as the result of the recession. 24 percent of students considering private colleges said they were more likely to choose a public one. 16 percent of families cited cost as the factor “most likely [to] dictate their decision.” Whether cost is the primary factor or a lesser one, the fact remains that a substantial portion of students are forgoing the best education available to them because of financial concerns.

While the prospect of a $200,000 tuition bill is certainly daunting, what of the bills that come even before the admissions office has even seen a student’s application? In reality families begin paying for their child’s college education in his or her sophomore year of high school. High school sophomores and juniors are given the option to take the PSAT, a shorter version of the SAT. While the PSAT does serve as the qualifying exam for the National Merit Scholarship competition for juniors, only a tiny percentage of students actually win any money (.26%). For most, the PSAT will cost roughly $20 per administration, but offers little to no benefit. The SAT, often taken in the junior and sometimes senior years of high school, costs $47 per test. Many students take the SAT more than once, and some spend extra for services like a more detailed score report. Many competitive colleges also require two SAT II subject tests, which cost $21 per sitting, plus $10 per test taken. AP tests, which many high schools require for students in AP classes, are by far the most expensive at $86 per test. It is not uncommon for a talented student to take five to ten AP tests over the course of their high school career. All of these standardized tests could easily add up to $1,000 or more over the course of three years.

SAT preparation books line the shelves at a bookstore
This figure doesn’t even include the cost of doing well on these tests, only the cost of taking them. To maximize their scores, students often buy test preparation books, take preparatory classes, or even hire private tutors. Kaplan, a provider of test preparation and college counseling services, offers all three levels of personal attention. Its books sell for about $15. A classroom course, which often has more than a dozen students, costs $499. Private tutoring starts at $165 per hour for a minimum of twenty hours, for a minimum total of $3,300. Standardized testing can easily add up to thousands of dollars, despite the fact that most colleges acknowledge that standardized test scores are relatively unimportant in admissions decisions.

The real costs start adding up once a prospective students start looking into what colleges they might want to attend. Online virtual tours have made it easier for students to get a taste of a college, but “there’s no substitute for actually visiting a campus,” explains Peterson’s, a college search engine. Train tickets, airfare, gasoline: however you decide to travel, the costs add up quickly. Add in a few hotel rooms and consider that a prospective student is likely to visit his or her top schools more than once during the admissions process, and visits can easily cost several thousand dollars.

The Common Application is a popular way to apply to college online
Many prospective college applicants can rack up $10,000 in costs before they even begin their applications. In comparison, the actual application fees can seem relatively minor. Nevertheless, college applications are on the rise, and each application generally costs between $65 and $85. With the advent of online applications and the shift to the Common Application, a single online application that can be sent to all of an applicant’s participating schools, it is increasingly common for students to apply to ten different schools. School guidance counselors frequently recommend doing so to allow for a greater range of choices as decisions come in. On top of the actual application fee, the $47 SAT registration fee does not include sending the official score report to colleges. That costs an extra $10 per school.

Of course like the SATs, the $1,000 to apply to ten colleges only covers submitting the applications, not making sure that an application will stand out to an admissions officer in a pile of hundreds. There are consultants for just about every part of the process, from the essay, to the application itself, to financial aid. Princeton Review, a test preparation services company, offers a complete online admissions course for $599. Alan Gelb, the author of the popular title “Conquering the College Admissions Essay in 10 Steps,” offers college essay coaching via email and phone for $1,200. Some school districts have dedicated college counselors for their students, but that luxury is often unavailable in poorer areas.

All said, the cost of applying to college could certainly break $10,000 for a substantial number of applicants. Efforts to create campus diversity by wooing those of modest means with financial aid have had some success, but could the tremendous cost of applying, not the cost of attending, be the key stumbling block to offering the best education to the most deserving students? We have to consider the possibility. True, the College Board offers its services for free to students who cannot afford to take the SAT and colleges will waive application fees as well. But what of all the other advantages that those who cannot afford the $10,000 application bill will miss out on? The benefits of all the review books, preparatory courses, college visits, and private tutoring are undeniable. How do we level the playing field for those who parents cannot afford to spend most of a month’s salary on an essay coach?

In some high schools, guidance counselors play an active role in the admissions process
For one, high schools could play a bigger role in the application process. The unfortunate truth is that mostly affluent high schools are often heavily involved in the college process, while urban districts are generally ill-equipped to provide comprehensive college counseling to their students. This is precisely the case at my own Columbia High School in Maplewood, New Jersey, where the guidance counselors are required to write recommendations and send transcripts. Beyond that, most of them aren’t trained as admissions counselors–it’s not part of their job. In the neighboring town of Millburn, whose per capita income is more than double that of Maplewood, the guidance department is deeply involved in its students’ applications. They edit essays in concert with the English department and review applications; they are more similar to private consultants than the guidance counselors at Columbia High School. Why can’t every high school have something similar?

For not all that much money, they can. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median annual wage for a secondary school guidance counselor is $61,190. If one dedicated college counselor was provided for every 200 students in a senior class, the annual cost would be just over $300 per student. A person with a bachelor’s degree, will, over the course of a lifetime, will earn nearly twice as much as a high school graduate ($900,000 more). Assuming an effective tax rate of roughly 15%, the bachelor’s degree creates an additional $135,000 in tax revenue over the course of the individual’s working life. Granted, I’ve grossly oversimplified the math here, but the conclusion is still valid. If the efforts of a dedicated college counselor can push the highest degree achieved for two or three students up one or two rungs, he or she has paid for him or herself. There are surely a host of other solutions that could address the problem of the rising cost of applying to college–I am only suggesting one idea. We invest billions each year to provide public education and defray the costs of a private university education. But the bridge between the two, the college application process, still remains a key hindrance in advancing the quality and availability of education. We shouldn’t be afraid to experiment with creative solutions and radically alter the playing field; it’s an investment in our students’ future, one we know will pay off.

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