Thursday, November 11, 2010

Ask the Administrator: Encouraging Junior to Stay Home

Ask the Administrator: Encouraging Junior to Stay Home

A new correspondent writes:

My children are about to “leave the nest” and head off to college. I have been on a number of college visits now, gone on campus tours, and listened to presentations from admissions staff. In many cases, the university has a “College of General Studies” for those whose major is “undecided”. Tuition for those enrolled in the College of General Studies is considerably less than for those, say, in the College of Engineering. The admissions representatives quite blatantly point out that, for the first two years, everyone is taking the same general education classes, but those enrolled in the College of Engineering are paying several thousand dollars more for them. Of course, no one can get a degree in General Studies. Those in the College of General Studies are expected to transfer into something more specific by the time they have achieved Junior status. The point is that there is a common theme in these presentations; “gen ed classes are gen ed classes.”
Of course, no university representative is going to suggest that prospective students save money by taking some of those gen ed classes at a community collegeand transfer in later. Still, we all know that tuition at a community college is much less than tuition at a university. One of the perks of being a full-time faculty member at a community college is the free tuition benefit for my dependents. Now, the question is…. how does one successfully promote the “live at home for another year and save $40K in tuition” to the senior in high school? It is very hard to combat the high school graduate’s desire to go away to a university, have the dorm experience, and feel independent. The argument of my economically unaware child is, “I can just take out student loans. Other people do it all the time and they manage.”
Of course, we as parents will help pay for some of the tuition, but we also feel that the college student should also be paying a portion of his/her tuition. Still, as one who had student loans hanging over my head for a VERY long time, not taking advantage of the affordable, transferrable, quality classes available at a community college seems like a poor plan.

You’ve stumbled upon one of the great unspokens of higher ed. Those huge freshman classes taught by T.A.’s are cash cows for universities. They subsidize other parts of the operation.

In terms of convincing your kid, I think the first question would be whether convincing your kid is actually a good idea. It may be, but each kid is different. What’s the motivation for starting at the university? If it’s little more than “that’s what’s next,” then a cc transfer program can be an excellent choice. If it’s “to get the hell away from my parents,” then talking about student loans would largely miss the point. Does your kid want the whole dorm experience, as you seem to imply?

Thinking back to my decision-making process in late high school, I remember thinking of college not just as a credential or a set of classes, but as a phase of life. It promised many things, not the least of which was getting out of the house and having The College Experience. (I defined that as including smart new friends, tremendous daily freedom, and visions of sex that seemed shameful back in those pre-internet days.) I ruled out any colleges within easy driving distance specifically to prevent falling back into old habits. Distance was a selling point. If you kid is thinking along those lines, then stressing the cost advantages of living with Mom and Dad probably won’t make much of an impression.

Some parents use bribery. They explain the cost savings to the kid, and offer to split the savings with him. This usually takes the form of a car. I always found that vaguely creepy, but your mileage may vary.

If your kid is thinking about distance as a virtue, one way to go might be to find a good cc relatively far away. Depending on where you live, the tuition penalty for being out-of-area may not amount to much, so you could still save on that while giving the kid some freedom from home.

If you do decide (or convince your kid to decide) to take a cc seriously as an option, I would VERY STRONGLY recommend making an appointment to talk with that cc’s transfer counselor before making a decision. Find out which universities have agreements with that cc, and how many credits they’ll take for a given program. You’re right that most of the basic gen eds transfer without issue -- Intro to Psych is Intro to Psych pretty much anywhere -- but some universities have quirky variations that you’d only know if you asked upfront.

At this point, my recommendation would be to look at a cc as a safety school. (They don’t get much safer than open admissions.) Apply to several places, and apply for financial aid at each. Then compare the post-award costs of the various places. Some private colleges rely on “Presidential Scholarships” (that is, discounting) to give everyone a break off the sticker price that nobody pays. Public universities tend to do much less of that, but you can’t always predict the post-aid cost just from looking at the sticker price. Just don’t make the mistake of thinking of loans as aid. Loans are loans. You’re looking at the cost after any discounts or scholarships. Depending on the offers you get, you may be surprised.

As to how you get teenagers to take the future seriously, I have absolutely no idea.

Good luck!

Wise and worldly readers, what would you suggest? Is there an argument that might persuade the kid who has romantic visions of dorm life? Is there a way to get a 17 year old to take future student loans seriously?

Have a question? Ask the Administrator at deandad (at) gmail (dot) com.