6 Questions to Measure the Cost of College

Opinion: Helping families more easily and quickly learn of their contribution “is a crucial first step” to “helping more Americans enter into and succeed in higher education,” two Wellesley officials write.

National Journal
H. Kim Bottomly And Phillip B. Levine
Add to Briefcase
See more stories about...
H. Kim Bottomly and Phillip B. Levine
Jan. 16, 2014, 9:34 a.m.

This week at a White House sum­mit on edu­ca­tion, more than 100 col­lege pres­id­ents will heed Pres­id­ent Obama’s call to boost the suc­cess of low-in­come stu­dents, com­mit­ting to a wide range of im­prove­ment meas­ures, such as en­rolling more low-in­come stu­dents and bol­ster­ing fac­ulty ment­or­ing and peer-sup­port sys­tems to en­sure that those stu­dents thrive. Obama’s fo­cus on equal edu­ca­tion re­flects a long­stand­ing but yet-to-be-real­ized na­tion­al com­mit­ment to mak­ing high­er edu­ca­tion ac­cess­ible for more Amer­ic­ans.

H. Kim Bot­tomly is pres­id­ent of Wellesly Col­lege. (Cour­tesy photo)This fo­cus on low-in­come stu­dents comes at a cru­cial time. Nearly 50 years after Lyn­don John­son set forth a vis­ion of “the Great So­ci­ety,” de­mand­ing “an end to poverty and ra­cial in­justice” and call­ing for “every young mind” to have ac­cess to “the farthest reaches of thought and ima­gin­a­tion,” high­er edu­ca­tion re­mains ho­mo­gen­ous in one strik­ing way. So­cioeco­nom­ic­ally, we are not di­verse.

Even with past pro­gress achieved by Pell Grants and oth­er fed­er­al pro­grams, low-in­come stu­dents en­roll and fin­ish col­lege at a much lower rate than their more af­flu­ent peers. Ac­cord­ing to the Na­tion­al Cen­ter for Edu­ca­tion Stat­ist­ics, the col­lege en­roll­ment rate for low-in­come stu­dents was about 50 per­cent in 2011, com­pared with more than 80 per­cent for high-in­come stu­dents.

One im­port­ant reas­on for this is the lack of in­form­a­tion re­gard­ing col­lege costs. Many low- and middle-in­come fam­il­ies as­sume they can­not af­ford a private four-year col­lege. Many high-achiev­ing, lower-in­come stu­dents don’t even ap­ply to, much less at­tend, se­lect­ive schools. Yet se­lect­ive col­leges of­ten have large en­dow­ments that en­able them to of­fer sub­stan­tial fin­an­cial-aid pack­ages, to have need-blind ad­mis­sions policies, and to re­duce or even elim­in­ate loan bur­dens for stu­dents from the low­est in­come levels. These se­lect­ive schools may cost even less than the loc­al pub­lic uni­versity. A New York Times art­icle last March showed, for ex­ample, that the av­er­age cost per year at the Uni­versity of Wis­con­sin sys­tem for a low-in­come stu­dent is $10,000; for the same stu­dent, Har­vard would cost $1,300.

There is an ob­vi­ous dis­con­nect between what fam­il­ies think they will need to pay, and what col­lege ac­tu­ally costs — and this dis­con­nect is one part of the ex­plan­a­tion for un­equal ac­cess. Provid­ing more ac­cess­ible and ac­cur­ate in­form­a­tion about ac­tu­al col­lege costs is a cru­cial first step to­ward achiev­ing Obama’s call for help­ing more Amer­ic­ans enter in­to and suc­ceed in high­er edu­ca­tion.

Welles­ley eco­nom­ics pro­fess­or Phil­lip B. Lev­ine led the de­vel­op­ment of the col­lege’s quick-cost es­tim­at­or. (Cour­tesy photo)For Welles­ley Col­lege, as for many oth­er col­leges, re­cruit­ing and help­ing tal­en­ted stu­dents from all back­grounds suc­ceed is a top pri­or­ity. A key chal­lenge to meet­ing that goal is at­tract­ing those high-achiev­ing stu­dents who as­sume they can’t af­ford a se­lect­ive col­lege. Though that chal­lenge is unique for every in­sti­tu­tion, we’ve de­veloped one low-cost solu­tion that is simple enough to share quite widely: My In­Tu­ition: Welles­ley’s Quick Col­lege Cost Es­tim­at­or provides any­one with an In­ter­net con­nec­tion ac­cess to a pre­lim­in­ary tu­ition es­tim­ate. While all schools are now re­quired to of­fer a net-price cal­cu­lat­or, these tools are of­ten in­tim­id­at­ing and cum­ber­some, fre­quently re­quir­ing an­swers to some 50 ques­tions. With My in­Tu­ition, pro­spect­ive stu­dents can ob­tain an ac­cur­ate es­tim­ate in about three minutes by an­swer­ing just six straight­for­ward fin­an­cial ques­tions.

Res­ults ob­tained from our cal­cu­lat­or sug­gest that roughly 90 per­cent of fam­il­ies in the United States with col­lege-age chil­dren are eli­gible for fin­an­cial aid at Welles­ley. Pro­spect­ive stu­dents could pay as little as $2,000 in out-of-pock­et ex­penses for those fam­il­ies earn­ing up to $40,000 per year, and up to an es­tim­ated fam­ily con­tri­bu­tion of $29,000 for fam­il­ies earn­ing between $125,000 and $150,000 an­nu­ally. (See the ab­stract and ac­cess the pa­per pub­lished by the Hamilton Pro­ject.)

Be­cause many schools share a sim­il­ar meth­od­o­logy for eval­u­at­ing fin­an­cial need, My in­Tu­ition can be eas­ily ad­ap­ted and im­ple­men­ted at oth­er col­leges. By broad­en­ing the ap­plic­ab­il­ity of the Welles­ley-de­veloped tool, schools na­tion­wide can help fam­il­ies make more in­formed de­cisions about their col­lege op­tions. We are com­mit­ted to help­ing to ex­pand the use of My in­Tu­ition else­where, be­cause we want to in­crease the num­ber of low-in­come stu­dents who ap­ply not only to Welles­ley, but also to many oth­er col­leges.

For John­son, the “Great So­ci­ety” was nev­er “a safe har­bor, a rest­ing place, a fin­ished work.” On the con­trary, it was a work in pro­gress, “a chal­lenge con­stantly re­newed.” And it is up to all of us — edu­cat­ors, poli­cy­makers, cit­izens — to take up that chal­lenge. It is im­port­ant to re­mem­ber that “great” does not simply mean rich and power­ful, but mor­ally great — rich in mind and spir­it, not just in pock­et.

At Welles­ley, we are still heed­ing the Great So­ci­ety’s battle cry, and are ex­cited that it has been reawakened by this ad­min­is­tra­tion — we are among those 100 col­leges that re­spon­ded to Pres­id­ent Obama’s call. Our in­nov­at­ive meas­ures such as My in­Tu­ition, en­hanced STEM pro­grams, ment­or­ing net­works, and stu­dent-sup­port sys­tems, however mod­est, are im­port­ant steps to­ward help­ing “every young mind” ima­gine and achieve full po­ten­tial. Col­lect­ively, with its re­newed fo­cus among so many col­leges, our coun­try may yet achieve LBJ’s dream: equal ac­cess to high­er edu­ca­tion for all young minds, no mat­ter their fam­ily cir­cum­stances.

What We're Following See More »
Republican Polling Shows Close Race
Roundup: National Polling Remains Inconsistent
4 hours ago

The national polls, once again, tell very different stories: Clinton leads by just one point in the IBD, Rasmussen, and LA Times tracking polls, while she shows a commanding 12 point lead in the ABC news poll and a smaller but sizable five point lead in the CNN poll. The Republican Remington Research Group released a slew of polls showing Trump up in Ohio, Nevada, and North Carolina, a tie in Florida, and Clinton leads in Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Virginia. However, an independent Siena poll shows Clinton up 7 in North Carolina, while a Monmouth poll shows Trump up one in Arizona

Colin Powell to Vote for Clinton
7 hours ago
Cook Report: Dems to Pick up 5-7 Seats, Retake Senate
9 hours ago

Since the release of the Access Hollywood tape, on which Donald Trump boasted of sexually assaulting women, "Senate Republicans have seen their fortunes dip, particularly in states like Florida, North Carolina, New Hampshire, Nevada and Pennsylvania," where Hillary Clinton now leads. Jennifer Duffy writes that she now expects Democrats to gain five to seven seats—enough to regain control of the chamber.

"Of the Senate seats in the Toss Up column, Trump only leads in Indiana and Missouri where both Republicans are running a few points behind him. ... History shows that races in the Toss Up column never split down the middle; one party tends to win the lion’s share of them."

Tying Republicans to Trump Now an Actionable Offense
11 hours ago

"Some Republicans are running so far away from their party’s nominee that they are threatening to sue TV stations for running ads that suggest they support Donald Trump. Just two weeks before Election Day, five Republicans―Reps. Bob Dold (R-Ill.), Mike Coffman (R-Colo.), David Jolly (R-Fla.), John Katko (R-N.Y.) and Brian Fitzpatrick, a Pennsylvania Republican running for an open seat that’s currently occupied by his brother―contend that certain commercials paid for by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee provide false or misleading information by connecting them to the GOP nominee. Trump is so terrible, these Republicans are essentially arguing, that tying them to him amounts to defamation."

Former Congressman Schock Fined $10,000
11 hours ago

Former Illinois GOP Congressman Aaron Schock "recently agreed to pay a $10,000 fine for making an excessive solicitation for a super PAC that was active in his home state of Illinois four years ago." Schock resigned from Congress after a story about his Downton Abbey-themed congressional office raised questions about how he was using taxpayer dollars.


Welcome to National Journal!

You are currently accessing National Journal from IP access. Please login to access this feature. If you have any questions, please contact your Dedicated Advisor.