Book Review: Right College, Right Price

As a independent educational consultant, I am constantly reading books about every aspect of the college admissions process. After all, my goal is to help families make the best decisions for their students by providing them with as much accurate information as possible, especially with regard to financial aid. Frank Palmasani’s book does offer some good planning tools and suggestions, but it also provides some very naive advice, of which I think families should be aware.

First, with the positives:
His book is written in very easy to read prose, so families can readily comprehend some of the technical aspects of a very complicated system. Most of the information about financial aid available on the web has been written by specialists, economists, and financial aid officers who wrap their advice in jargon. Given that the financial aid system is so nuanced, you can easily get lost in all the details. This book does a good job of separating the different parts of the financial aid picture, and repeating advice so that families don’t forget what they read about in previous chapters.

The affordability worksheet is a good starting place for families to build a budget. While it doesn’t address all potential sources of personal finances (for example, a number of families with refinance their homes to borrow against the equity in the house to pay for college – he does, however, discuss this option in Chapter 15), it does provide a solid starting point. Families do need to understand their cash flow and cut back on unnecessary expenses wherever possible.

His distinction among eight different types of educational institution is insightful, as is his listing of quality net price calculators, which families can utilize to understand how much they will potentially receive in need-based and merit-aid from different types of schools. Everyone, even independent educational consultants lime me, should bookmark his suggestions!

He does provide some great advice on how to mitigate the costs of college, such as by changing one’s state of residency, commuting, working as a Resident Advisor in a dorm, and trying to graduate early. Again, these are great starting points, but he definitely could have gone a little bit deeper.

Now, with the negatives:
In my professional opinion, Palmasani’s view of community colleges is incredibly naive. He encourages students to attend these schools for the first two years of college and then to “simply” transfer to a four-year institution. Unfortunately, the transfer process is anything but simple, and many students who follow the route he suggests encounter a number of discouraging obstacles on their way to a Bachelor’s Degree.
Many families don’t realize that when their children select the community college option, that they are complicating, and thus reducing, their chances of earning a Bachelor’s Degree. Statistics show that roughly a quarter of students (http://www.aacu.org/transfer/student_mobility/whatdoweknow.cfm) who start their education at public community colleges manage to transfer into a four-year school. Add that hurdle to the fact that only 44.3-53.2% of undergraduate students finish their degrees in four-years, and 55.5-66.3% complete them in six (http://www.act.org/research/policymakers/pdf/retain_2012.pdf), and getting a college degree seems an even more distant prospect.

So what tends to be the problem?

The issue has less to do with the abilities of community-college students than with the intricacy of transfer admissions process. Not only do the requirements and expectations vary greatly from college to college, but also four-year institutions do not always accept the class credits earned at two-year schools. That can mean that your child has spent two years working towards completing a degree in his or her chosen discipline, only to discover that he or she needs to back track at a new university. You can imagine how incredibly frustrating and discouraging this is for students!
In financial terms (which is what Palmasani’s book is supposed to cover), it means that your child will likely become one of those students who finishes college in five or six years, rather than in the traditional four. So what you thought would translate into serious savings has actually cost your child both in terms of time and money. Plus, those Subsidized Direct Loans your child took out to finance the first two years at community college deplete the less costly resources available to finance the more expensive four-year school. After all, they are only offered for up to $23,000. Now, you and your child will have to take out Direct Unsubsidized Loans, parental Direct PLUS Loans, or even less-favorable private ones, which all have higher interest rates and worse repayment terms, in order to pay for your child’s degree.

The costs, however, are not only limited to financial ones, but social and academic ones as well. In most cases, students form their on-campus social networks during their freshman year, when they are living in dorms and everyone is looking to make new friends. Many transfer students often find it very difficult to integrate into campus life during their sophomore or junior years, and many colleges lack organized programs to help smooth this transition. In addition, transfer students spend a lot of time at their new schools completing distribution requirements or repeating courses that they already took at their community college. As a result, students who start their higher education at a community college not only have to work much harder to complete their degree on time, but they also miss out on opportunities like course electives and study abroad.

So unless your child is academically ineligible to enroll at a four-year university, it may make more all-around sense for him or her to apply directly to a Bachelor’s Degree program and skip the community college option.

Overall Impression
Right College, Right Price is a good starting point for understanding financial fit. However, families with academically capable students should probably think twice about community colleges. They should also consider the social limitations of pursuing some of his other suggestions, such as commuting, or the academic limitations of other recommendations, such as graduating early, since to do so would mean that your child either doesn’t socialize to complete his/her degree in advance or he/she enters college with a number of AP credits under his/her belt. While the financial piece of college is incredibly important, it isn’t the only one. Please remember that making what may seem like a financially responsible decision may come with other costs!

Posted on August 11, 2013 at 10:17 am

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