College 101: How to pay for it

Paying for college is a lot like buying a new car. Every single year.

Expect the annual bill to run anywhere from at least $13,000 for a state university to $50,000 or more for a private school. If you’re middle class and believe financial aid will pick up a good portion of that tab — after all, a $30,000-a-year school might be half of your family’s income — think again.

President Barack Obama speaks at Henninger High School in Syracuse, N.Y. about his plan to make college more affordable. (Jacquelyn Martin/Associated Press) President Barack Obama speaks at Henninger High School in Syracuse, N.Y. about his plan to make college more affordable. (Jacquelyn Martin/Associated Press)

That’s why it was exciting to hear that President Obama was introducing a plan to help make college more affordable for the middle class. Until I heard the details.

We’re in the middle of paying for our daughter’s college experience at a private liberal arts school in the Midwest. When she chose that institution in 2010, my husband was gainfully employed as a software developer and we had a middle-class income. She was awarded academic and talent scholarships (or merit-based aid, as the professionals call it) that covered a little more than half of the annual $30,000 sticker price ($21,000 tuition and fees, $8,000 room and board and $1,000 books), bringing the cost down to that of a state school.

Soon after she started college, we went through a series of layoffs (mostly due to jobs being outsourced overseas). Our family income plummeted and we lived on our savings for months. Let’s just say it’s hard to pay for college with unemployment checks.

Yes, we considered a number of options, but college is an emotional topic. It’s seen (and rightly so, to some extent) as the path to a better job and a better life. Choosing the right school carries a terrible weight of responsibility as you realize your decision may have more impact on your child’s future than almost anything else you do as a parent.

To stay in school, our daughter’s been forced to borrow and will most likely graduate around $25,000 in debt. (That’s a car, or a hefty down payment on a home.) It translates to 10 years of monthly $300 payments, and yes, I was grateful when Congress capped the student loan rates in a rare act of bipartisanship this summer. I do like the president’s Pay As You Earn plan to cap federal student loan payments at 10 percent of a graduate’s monthly income.

Our daughter did qualify for Pell grants the last two years, but this year’s maximum award is $5,635. Not to sound ungrateful, but that’s a drop in the bucket. If it’s this tough for us to pay for college, what hope is there for the single mom making minimum wage at a fast-food restaurant who wants a better future for her children?

If this country is truly serious about making higher education accessible to every deserving student, then why aren’t we looking at more innovative plans than tying financial aid to graduation rates (and it’s a no-brainer to guess that schools will “dumb” down to ensure financial aid recipients get the degree).

What about Oregon’s plan to “pay it forward, pay it back”? Students would not pay anything upfront for college but would, instead, pay 3 percent of their income for 24 years after graduation. The idea began as a class project at Portland State University last year and has gained rapid support.

Washington state offers a scholarship program open to low-income 7th and 8th graders who, after signing up, will be eligible for tuition at public institutions if they “work hard in school, stay out of legal trouble, and successfully apply to a higher education institution when they graduate.”

Washington also offers a 529 college-savings plan that’s guaranteed to increase as school costs rise, without being tied to the risk of the stock market, and can be used at nearly any school — public or private — in the country. The state’s web site for students (as young as middle school) and parents is one of the most user-friendly tools for helping to plan for college costs that I’ve seen.

Texas Republican Gov. Rick Perry introduced a plan in 2011 for a $10,000 college degree, leading state schools to look for innovative ways of delivering a diploma through a combination of advanced high school classes, community college and online courses and time at a traditional college.

In south Missouri, the private College of the Ozarks, or Hard Work U. as it’s nicknamed, trades tuition for student work and a dedication to its Christian principles. It’s not for everyone, but it’s another alternative for graduating debt-free.

The president’s plan does include looking at ways to promote innovation in higher education. Frankly, technology has the potential to shake up education in this country with Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) and students learning from home. Both of my kids have already taken online courses during high school so they’re already used to learning this way.

We may want to look at whether every student should even go to college. What about two-year programs that focus more on the skills needed for jobs? Are there apprenticeships that could teach those skills as well or better than any classroom setting?

There’s no one answer or single approach to the problem of more than $1 trillion in student debt. But while the pundits talk about how the cost of college has skyrocketed and politicians ponder how to help poor and and middle-class families pay for higher education, those of us with college-age kids need help now.

We can’t wait for answers or assistance. Otherwise, college may become an institution just for the rich.

Diana Reese is a journalist in Overland Park, Kan. Follow her on Twitter at @dianareese.

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