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For newly accepted students, demystifying the ins and outs of college expenses and aid

April 3, 2014 at 6:45 PM EDT
It’s the time of year when students around the country are receiving college acceptance letters. Now comes the number crunching: how will they pay? Hari Sreenivasan talks to Claudio Sanchez of NPR and Roberta Johnson of Iowa State University about calculating the costs and navigating the financial aid options.
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GWEN IFILL: Finally tonight: navigating the maze of questions surrounding the cost of college.

This week, many students are getting their final college acceptance notices. That’s exciting. But now comes the crunch: calculating the potential costs and deciding what they can really afford.

Hari is back with a conversation on what students and families need to know.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Total student debt in the U.S. is estimated to be more than $1 trillion. Roughly 70 percent of college graduates were carrying an average debt load of $29,000 for the most recent year studied, and default rates are rising.

NPR is doing a month-long project called “Paying for College.”

And here to help shed some light on all this is education reporter Claudio Sanchez. He’s been a key part of that. And we also get insight from Roberta Johnson, director of student financial aid at Iowa State University. She’s testified before Congress on these issues.

So, Claudio Sanchez, I want to start with you. Let’s look at the tuition vs. the total costs or the sticker price vs. the real price. What did you find in your reporting? Are families aware of the difference?

CLAUDIO SANCHEZ, NPR: Most often, they are not.

And the sticker price, of course, is what everybody is scared by. But if you take a look at the typical family that is sending a kid in state to a good public institution, what we found was that there has been an enormous increase in tuition. Since 1980, tuition increases have been about 1000 — have risen 1200 percent.

That’s pretty outrageous, certainly in the view of parents who these days are struggling even more, in post-recession. And certainly when wages are stagnant, most Americans, 70 percent, according to the latest polling, is saying, we can’t afford higher education. And if you look at that state, in-state tuition, on average, we’re looking at maybe $20,000 a year, room and board included, including other expenses. And that translates into a four year payment of $80,000 a year. Again, it’s a lot of money.

And that is what is making families certainly so nervous about what is next for their students, for their kids. It’s a real problem.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Roberta Johnson, you speak to some of these parents sometimes. Are there hidden costs that they are not calculating in?

ROBERTA JOHNSON, Iowa State University: We try to let our families know most of the costs.

But, certainly, we cannot control what their students are going to be spending on personal expenditures. So, as Claudio mentioned, tuition fees, room and board are costs that we include in what is called the total cost of attendance.

We also try to estimate what books are going to cost for the student. But that will vary depending upon the curricular area in which the student is enrolled. Most colleges and universities will also have a suggested personal category for students. And we try to keep that quite reasonable.

My institution, we actually surveyed students, and we recalibrated a couple of years ago to lower that to approximately $2,500 for a nine-month period of enrollment. Certainly, we do have students that spend more than $2,500 over that period of time. But many times, we will find students that do live very frugally and are able to survive on far less.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Let’s talk a little bit about the types of aid available. We have got scholarships, we have got grants, we have got loans.

Ms. Johnson, staying with you for a second, how are they different, very basically?

ROBERTA JOHNSON: Well, the scholarships and grants fall into a category that we call gift aid.

And, basically that means that those dollars do not need to be repaid. It’s a gift to the student. Generally, a scholarship is something that is earned on the basis of the student’s merit. So, either they have academic merit and they are awarded the scholarship because of their performance in the classroom, or they may have some sort of a talent, such as musical talent or drama or something like that, that would enable them to qualify for a merit-based scholarship.

Some scholarships also have what is called financial need as a component of the scholarship. And in order for schools to determine that, a family does need to complete a federal document known as the Free Application for Federal Student Aid. Utilizing a federally mandated formula, they determine what the family should reasonably be able to pay for a student’s education, and subtract that from that cost of attendance that was mentioned earlier.

And that is the financial need. So we look at need for some scholarships, but not all. Need is definitely a component for many of the grant programs, which are dollars that are given to students who otherwise wouldn’t be able to afford to go to school, if not for these grant funds.

HARI SREENIVASAN: All right, Claudio Sanchez, when you go out and speak to different parents, are they getting the distinctions even on something so fundamental?

CLAUDIO SANCHEZ: Absolutely not, Hari.

The problem with all this is that it is a very complicated process, beginning with the FAFSA, in fact, which is often harder than filling in your tax. The FAFSA essentially helps determine the expected family contribution. And many people think that that whole formula is out of whack, and it’s a formula set by Congress.

And it is out of whack because, if you look at a family with $100,000 income, that family is expected to contribute about $1,500 a month every month for four years. That’s a lot of money. Now, when it comes to institutional aid, I mean, that only constitutes about 5 percent, maybe no more than 8 percent of what students do get.

The bulk of the financial aid out there is coming from the federal government, about 37 percent. The rest does come from institutional aid. And, you know, it’s very difficult for families to navigate this system. It’s very difficult for families to dig through the information. There is a lot of pressure on institutions these days, from the president on down, to become a more transparent and to offer more consumer-friendly information for families.

But that — that is not happening quickly enough. And, again, it’s creating this sense that families are being outpriced, and that unless you are really savvy and unless you have that experience, you are really not going to be able to take advantage of some of the money that is available.

One other point is that, often, people think that because poor students qualify for more assistance, Pell Grants, grant aid, those kinds of things, and perhaps not have to take out as many loans — that’s a myth. The real story is that most poor families, first-generation college students are the ones having to really borrow a lot more, and go into debt, which, as you mentioned early on, you know, is upwards of $29,000, $30,000 in debt after four years.

That, again, is a lot of money to pay back.

HARI SREENIVASAN: All right, Claudio Sanchez and Roberta Johnson, thank you both for your time.

JUDY WOODRUFF: We know there is more information parents and students want to know. Hari continued this conversation online. And you can find links to NPR’s coverage.

PBS NewsHour education coverage is part of American Graduate: Let’s Make it Happen, a public media initiative made possible by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.