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The Places You’ll Go

Catherine Horiuchi

MY TWIN DAUGHTERS just finished sorting through college offers and making their decision ahead of the May 1 acceptance deadline. With nearly 3,000 four-year colleges to choose from, how did they decide?

It wasn’t easy. The pandemic didn’t just close our local public schools. It also ended visits from universities and limited school-based college counseling. Counselors compensated with lunchtime workshops, links to webinars, and lots of robocalls and emails urging students to fill out and submit the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA).

Working on their applications from home, my students were deluged with glossy mailings. “The University of Chicago wants you,” I said to one twin. She laughed and replied, “No, they don’t.”

Luckily, during my daughters’ junior year, I attended one at-school event just before the pandemic hit. The presenters explained that neighboring states might be a better choice than our in-state system. They also encouraged parents to help their students build a list of seven to 10 schools in three categories: safety, match and reach. To further my education, I read several books, including The Price You Pay for College, Excellent Sheep, Who Gets In and Why and The Tyranny of Merit.

With COVID-19 disrupting the usual pre-college test taking, applications surged for high-visibility and elite universities that were offering test-optional and test-blind reviews. There was also much interest in colleges with need-blind admissions, especially those where financial aid comes solely in the form of grant money. The resulting deluge of applicants for relatively few spots made it easy for these colleges to assemble an incoming class that matched their wishes, while sharply reducing the chances that any one student would make the cut.

Faced with this discouraging math, we sought out solidly rated, somewhat selective, diverse and interesting colleges where the students’ median grade point average (GPA) and test scores resembled ours. In particular, we focused on four-year schools that had the career orientation essential to one twin, and universities with a lower net cost and the broad program of undergraduate study needed by the other.

Both had sat for the SAT the week before their high school closed, but the prevalence of test-optional and test-blind reviews diminished the value of their good scores. Meanwhile, their high school GPAs weren’t as competitive. Partly that was a result of the distance learning necessitated by the pandemic. But it also reflected the well-known academic performance hit following a parental death—in this case the sudden loss of their father in 2019.

Every college application this year included a question inviting students to describe the impact of the pandemic. Reports suggest that answers to this question heavily influenced application decisions. By contrast, my daughters’ loss of their father is a less universal and less widely understood grief, and no doubt harder for the typical admissions reader to interpret.

I had the twins write their own essays. We made a conscious decision not to play in the space where consultants “advise” students or where parents “help” with essays. Given how easy it is to game these essays, I’m surprised at their oversized importance in the admissions process.

While the girls wrote their essays, I studied key statistics found in federal data, including retention and graduation rates. An example: The state university in our city reports a four-year graduation rate of only 12% and a six-year graduation rate of 55%. Saving money short-term by going local thus creates a likely long-term opportunity cost that’s equal to two years of post-college employment income. I focused on cost, likelihood of admission, speedy graduation and low rates of loan default. This last data point is a good proxy for post-college success.

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The twins ultimately decided on a handful of “good fit” schools, expecting to be accepted by one or more. The good news: Each was admitted to and will attend her first-choice school. I have modest sticker shock. The first year alone will cost more than my last full year’s after-tax salary. The best part: I will “contribute” significantly less than the FAFSA-calculated EFC, or expected family contribution. How is that?

Many schools, especially private nonprofit colleges, discount tuition through awards of merit aid. This is one reason to look beyond local public universities. Merit awards for each twin mean that sending the girls to college won’t break the bank. I anticipate today that I have enough to pay my fair share of the tab for the next four years.

My initial promise to my twins was one year of college costs. It’s up to them to show they’re ready to do right by my investment of life savings, as well as by their own investment of time and effort. If all goes well, I’ve promised to continue supporting their studies in future academic years.

What have I learned from all of this?

  1. In the aggregate, graduating from college in four years leads to a long-term positive return on investment. We don’t, however, live in the aggregate. Instead, we live in individual families and in uncertain times. To find good places for your students to apply, you need to know your students’ desires, your family’s capacity to pay, the likelihood of a positive return for the degrees they seek and how that education will feed into their career aspirations.
  2. While some top schools are highly selective, most admit a majority of applicants. For incoming students at any particular college, interquartile ranges for GPAs and SAT/ACT scores are usually available. At private schools, merit aid offers are likely if your student’s GPA and test scores place him or her in the top quartile.
  3. Your children may not be certain of their desired major or which schools might be a good choice. But some things can be teased out. Big city or small town? Big university or small college? Lots of fun or lots of academic collaboration? Avoid shoehorning your kid according to your beliefs about the next 50 years. Honestly, you don’t know.
  4. As a parent, your information needs differ from those of your child. Review all the data you can find on schools your student has suggested, including student demographics, net price and default rates for those who have federal loans.
  5. Colleges that send glossy brochures seek to boost applications and drive selectivity—and thus their national ranking—to new heights. If your student has previously shown interest in one of these schools and wants to apply, know that the likelihood of getting in is minuscule, even if your student appears to be a stellar applicant.
  6. Your student didn’t get in anywhere she applied? Or earlier thought she’d take a gap year before applying, only to be sad now that her friends are heading off to college? No worries. Many schools, public and private, have non-traditional deadlines or rolling admissions. Check out this list.

Catherine Horiuchi recently retired from the University of San Francisco’s School of Management, where she was an associate professor teaching graduate courses in public policy, public finance and government technology. Check out Catherine’s earlier articles.

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Peter Blanchette
Peter Blanchette
2 months ago

Didn’t you and your husband have life insurance?

Christopher Galen
Christopher Galen
2 months ago

Many colleges in the selective end of the spectrum saw record numbers of applicants this year, some places 25%+ increases from last year. It made the competitive pool much more crowded and added yet another stress factor for those seniors who have in most cases not had a full year of in person school.

Catherine
Catherine
2 months ago

Our school district only opened high schools three weeks ago, and only two half days a week, three one-hour classes one day, three the next. (No extracurriculars, no social mixing, all independent work in the classroom, no groups.) Only a handful of students have opted to go back under these conditions. My kids went back to school, and now have enjoyed in-person instruction on campus for six half days, that’s a total of 18 hours of in-person instruction in 15 months. Is it any wonder a lot of seniors are struggling to get passing marks, and many did not apply to college? Community colleges and some state universities saw a worrisome decline in applications.
The majority of new admits for highly selective schools attend private schools, which had the briefest of closings last year and have been open most of this academic year. The schools in affluent suburbs in our area also reopened many months earlier than our urban district, some have been open virtually all year. Tough to compete against students who’ve been in school all year, so I’m happy with the schools mine will be able to attend, once they finish all their end of year exams, papers and projects on their own, mostly at home in front of a computer screen.

stelea99
stelea99
2 months ago

I think this is an interesting topic. My grandchildren are beginning their college years, one last Fall, and one this Fall. What I see missing in this discussion and many others is the relationship between the cost of the education and the potential future income from the employment that one can obtain with the degree(s). Top of the line private schools can cost over $300k for a BA or BS. The beginning salary for a teacher in Tucson AZ is around $40k. It would appear difficult to justify attending expensive private schools if you want to be a teacher. For around $80k you can get a BA or BS from a lot of State Universities as a resident. Students who are going to borrow to attend college need to plan how they will repay their loans.

Catherine
Catherine
2 months ago
Reply to  stelea99

Thank you for raising these interesting points.

I am seeking “a long-term positive return on investment,” which is what I think you are describing when you suggest that spending $300k to get a $40k job is problematic. I agree!

My teens aren’t thinking quite the same way, but they are conscious of the need to graduate and pay their way through life, hopefully doing work they find satisfying and useful.

A thought experiment (grossly oversimplified, but illustrative) of a key criteria for me: schools that have a solid 4-year graduation rate, reducing opportunity cost. This figures heavily in any cost vs. income assessment.

With no college, an 18-year-old can earn maybe $30k in many cities. While his friend spends 4 years and $80k to get a $40k teaching job.
Let’s see how that compares.

Y1 Y2 Y3 Y4 Y5 Y6 Y7 Y8
HS grad 30 30 30 30 30 30 30 30 = $240k
College -20 -20 -20 -20 40 40 40 40 = $80k

The kid who didn’t go to college is over $100k ahead after 8 years.

It gets worse.

Let’s suppose our student is more typical (at least in my state) and takes 6 years to finish and start his $40k job.
      Y1 Y2 Y3 Y4 Y5 Y6 Y7 Y8 Y9 Y10
HS grad 30 30 30 30 30 30 30 30 30 30 = $300k
College -20 -20 -20 -20 -20 -20 40 40 40 40 = $40k

Now, over ten years the kid who didn’t go to college is $260k ahead.

Even if he’d only been earning $20k a year he’d still be ahead of his friend, though at $20k a year difference, the college grad would lead pretty soon.

Either way, by the time they were both 35 or 40, the college grad would pull ahead, probably building on that lead for another 25 years before retiring.

One last comparison, a school that costs twice as much but where most graduate in four years vs. a school where most graduate in six, outcome being the same $40k job.
       Y1 Y2 Y3 Y4 Y5 Y6 Y7 Y8 Y9 Y10
College 1 -40 -40 -40 -40 40 40 40 40 40 40 = $80k
College 2 -20 -20 -20 -20 -20 -20 40 40 40 40 = $40k

The more expensive school results in a better outcome, when the graduate’s earnings are considered, that is, when we’ve considered opportunity costs.

Most 18-year-olds don’t want to hear that if they study hard for 4-6 years, they’ll earn more than their friends who don’t go to college, but won’t close the cumulative lead till they’re 40 years old! They want a good education and a good career, but for most, the details are pretty fussy.

There are excellent websites that provide the cost of particular colleges as well as the likely incomes after graduation. I like the government’s CollegeScorecard site which includes data in the Common Data Set (mandatory reporting from institutions) and you can drill down to particular majors, and Georgetown’s CollegeROI site which compares outcomes over longer periods, from 10 to 40 years post-graduation

The costs borne by students/families for state universities vs. private schools are highly dependent on their/their parents’ income and any merit aid that might be awarded. Every family’s situation is unique, but in our case it is definitely cheaper for one of my twins to go to a private school and definitely more expensive for the other twin to go to a private school, so something of a wash on the public-vs-private question, in terms of schools they were admitted to and for which they received offers of financial aid.

As an example, the state university system here in California costs about $35,000 per year for tuition and housing if an in-state student does not qualify for need-based aid, which is true of many families who would consider themselves middle-class. There are many private schools at about that same net cost, once a financial aid packet is factored in. This is also about the price I would be paying if either had chosen an out-of-state public university in Utah, Wyoming, or Washington, where they applied and were accepted.

It’s true that the cheapest route could be for them to live at home and go to either our local community college or state school, or an online public university such as ASU. Many students do so. However, the most expensive degree is the one that isn’t finished. And many students spend much longer than 4 years working on a 4-year degree. The cost of not graduating, or those years out of the workforce, need to be included when estimating the relative value of schools under consideration.

Last edited 2 months ago by Catherine
Rick Connor
Rick Connor
2 months ago

Catherine, great article that has generated a lot of great comments. Really well written with lots of great information.

My experience in hiring engineers over 30 years is you can great a great person form lots of different schools. Your top schools, or top GPAs, don’t guarantee a work ethic – you can find that in state schools as well.

I now a great young man who helped design the thermal control system on the latest Mars Rover with a VA Tech degree!

Catherine
Catherine
2 months ago
Reply to  Rick Connor

Rick, you are so correct on the value of a solid work ethic. And an enthusiastic, passionate student will learn plenty at any accredited school, especially if they take advantage of office hours with professors/TAs, use the library resources liberally, and hang around campus checking out lectures, films, and other happenings.
I didn’t mention that the most illustrious engineering schools are flooded with top-notch applicants. Any student interested in an undergraduate engineering degree may find that the major is impacted and unaccessible in the top schools. There are plenty of state universities with excellent engineering programs and solid career opportunities, as you noted.

medhat
medhat
2 months ago

Funny, but I have twins as well and we went through a similar process, but Richard summarized my thoughts concisely. There are a lot of schools out there in all shapes and sizes, and as far as I was concerned it was mostly about what each of my kids thought was the best “fit” for them (they’ll be matriculating to different schools). One caveat from personal experience (not mine, but one I’m well familiar with): initial impressions may not pan out to be accurate. In my back pocket I’m prepared if either should find it doesn’t suit their person or goals. May be a hassle, but I’m not one for overemphasizing sunk costs, even if they’re for a college education. I think they’ll get more out of an experience if they are comfortable and fully engaged. Fingers crossed.

Catherine
Catherine
2 months ago
Reply to  medhat

The sunk cost fallacy! or “Don’t throw good money after bad.” Right, I have fingers crossed too. Both chose big city schools and I would not be surprised if they stay in those places for many years, regardless of how school turns out.

Mik Cajon
Mik Cajon
2 months ago

Trade schools seem to be a better career option for most students…no university indoctrination, lower costs and higher starting salaries, etc.

Last edited 2 months ago by Mik Cajon
Catherine
Catherine
2 months ago
Reply to  Mik Cajon

I was talking to a service manager at a car dealership this week, he has jobs for mechanics that are currently unfilled. Meanwhile, there no longer are auto shop classes at any of the public high schools in my area. I am already talking with my youngest about community college and the direct career tracks housed there.

R Quinn
R Quinn
2 months ago

Having had four children go through this many years ago, it seems nothing much has changed in the process. It causes a great deal of stress for students and parents.

My view of college has changed since 1988 when the oldest of my four started. Except for the child being comfortable where they go, I don’t think much else matters. In the end it’s all about what the student gets out of the experience and what the graduate then makes of their life and choices.

A degree from any particular school matters very little after landing ones first job. It’s then all up to them.

I’m all for education in all it’s forms and ongoing as well, but I think we overemphasize the value associated with this or that college, with its cost and reputation.

Catherine
Catherine
2 months ago
Reply to  R Quinn

If I want to work at, say, Jet Propulsion Lab on a Mars rover, I want to go to Cal Tech, sure.
Harvard or Yale law if I want to be a Supreme Court justice but even that lens is widening of late.
Being your best possible self in college, looking for and saying yes to opportunities, hard to go wrong,

Catherine
Catherine
2 months ago
Reply to  R Quinn

I have read your pieces about your four children, thanks for your stories.
One book I read had a whole chapter on the high school AP arms race and how kids come to college with only the sketchiest knowlege of many things, a result of years of force-feeding and stuffing to get into good or “the best” school.
From the day a kid walks out the front door, it’s up to them! Good times or bad, good luck or ill.

R Quinn
R Quinn
2 months ago
Reply to  R Quinn

I disagree. It may help land you a better first job, but then it’s up to the individual based on performance. There are no guarantees based on where you went to school. If there is any additional value it probably reflects the quality of students in the first place. A good education must be effectively applied and sometimes other personal qualities can be as much or more value.

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