Union in the News for August 15, 2005
Union in tune with parents' needs and today's economy
By Anne Marie Chaker - The Wall Street Journal
Fall ushers in not only a new batch of college students, but also parents who fret about the ballooning cost of a college education.
That's understandable. Tuitions are expected to continue rising far faster than the rate of inflation -- increasing next fall by an average of about 8 percent at public colleges and universities and 5.7 percent for private colleges. Tuition and fees at private colleges now top $20,000 a year on average -- and that doesn't include room and board, which can sometimes be a requirement at private schools.
But while many families scour desperately for big-ticket scholarships or despair at the huge debts they expect to incur, there are a few tricks that can save a chunk of change over the course of a college career, from the application process to senior year.
ASK FOR MORE
First, never be shy about negotiating your financial-aid package. Union College in Schenectady, N.Y., says it sees an average of about 150 appeals from parents for more aid and is able to give extra grant money to about three-fourths of those. At Hope College in Holland, Mich., director of financial aid Phyllis Hooyman says she is also able to help about three-fourths of families who request extra aid, either by approving more grant aid or helping arrange more loans. She says, however, the bar is pretty high to qualify for additional help -- examples have included a job loss or divorce -- and she requires documentation.
Kalman Chany, president of Campus Consultants Inc., a New York firm that provides college-financial-aid planning services, says that as many as 80 percent of his clients who appealed their financial aid have received extra funds. Mr. Chany says the key is to present additional information or new circumstances that might sway a financial-aid officer -- for instance, a reduction in income, high medical expenses not covered by insurance, or a loss of employer benefits.
"You have to be able to convince them why their formulas don't fit your circumstances," says Mr. Chany.
It also can pay to not head off to your dream school right away. Cheaper alternatives, such as community colleges, are increasingly emerging as a way to gain entry to top-notch four-year colleges -- while saving thousands of dollars in tuition at the same time. Average tuition and fees at community colleges are around $2,000 a year, compared with more than double that for in-state students at public four-year colleges and 10 times that at private colleges. Not only might it make financial sense to attend a community college for a couple of years before transferring to a pricier four-year college, but it could also be an easier way of getting into a dream school.
For instance, state policy in California favors students who transfer from a community college to either the California State University or the University of California system. Each University of California campus has agreements with community colleges to facilitate transfer if certain academic requirements are met. In some cases, it might be easier to get into a top-flight university as a community-college transfer than as a high-school senior. Some 33 percent of applicants to UC Berkeley from California community colleges were accepted for this fall, compared with 28 percent of in-state high-school applicants.
Other community colleges maintain informal but still close ties to a flagship state university. Every year, about 150 graduates of Piedmont Virginia Community College, in Charlottesville, Va., apply to the University of Virginia, and about two-thirds of them are accepted, says Frank Friedman, Piedmont's president. By comparison, just under half of in-state high-school applicants were accepted for this fall.
"We always say to students that don't get in (at first) ... if they're local people and they go to Virginia community colleges and do well in a program, their chances are excellent" of getting into UVA on their second try, says John Blackburn, dean of admissions at UVA. He adds that about one-third of transfers who enroll at the university first applied as high-school students and weren't admitted.
More community colleges also are starting special programs to attract talented high-school graduates who plan to transfer to another college later. Florida's multicampus Miami Dade College started an honors college in 2002 with 75 students at one campus. Now, the program has grown to about 400 students on three campuses, and about half of its graduates have gone on to top four-year colleges across the country, including Cornell University, Columbia University and Yale University. Miami Dade has agreements with 90 universities -- including Union College and Mount Holyoke -- to guarantee admission if certain conditions are met, allowing graduates to start as juniors. Tuition at Miami Dade is just under $2,000 a year for a full-time, in-state student. (All Honors College students receive a scholarship that covers that amount, provided they remain in good academic standing.)
To get accepted to the honors college, students must graduate from high school with a minimum grade-point average of 3.7 or roughly 1,800 on the new SAT (where a perfect score is 2,400, rather than the old 1,600).
For some students, a community college offers a great way to find their bearings and ease into college-level academics. Graduate student Wen Zhang says he coasted through high school, finishing with roughly a B-plus average, without putting in much effort. He began attending Rockland Community College in Suffern, N.Y., in his senior year of high school and found the environment to be more stimulating.
"You're surrounded by people that are more mature, you no longer have to ask to go to the bathroom by raising your hand," he says. "Your successes and failures are no longer because your parents and teachers are pushing you." It was in his second year at Rockland, part of the State University of New York system, that he found an interest in science and nutrition. He graduated with mostly A's from the school's honors college in the spring of 2002 and was able to transfer to Cornell University as a junior the following fall. He is currently working toward a Ph.D. in molecular metabolism and nutrition at the University of Chicago.
For a few parents who themselves are looking for a new job and have children wishing to attend school near home, it can make sense to check employment opportunities at local colleges. Many colleges and universities offer big tuition discounts to faculty and staff whose dependent children enroll. That can be a sizable benefit particularly at private institutions. The University of Southern California, for instance, gives free tuition to children of eligible employees. At George Washington University, dependent children of regular full-time employees who've put in four or more years get 87 percent of tuition covered, while for employees who have worked less than one year, coverage is 47 percent.
Duke University goes so far as to provide money for undergraduate tuition expenses incurred by children of its employees at any college or university. After a deductible of $1,750 is met, the benefit provides nontaxable tuition grants of as much as 75 percent of a tuition equivalent to that of Duke. For 2005-06, that's nearly $12,000 per semester. Caveat: The parent needs to have been employed by Duke for at least five years.
At the University of Chicago, children of faculty and a few other academic staff can get help with tuition either at Chicago or another college. For these kids, the plan covers up to 100 percent of the University of Chicago's tuition rate. Children of nonacademic employees receive 50 percent of undergraduate tuition if they attend Chicago, but no help with tuition anywhere else.
For Andrea Joldrichsen, finding a job at the University of Toledo, in Ohio, was timely indeed. She was looking for a new job in 2002, having been laid off the year before by a company that had downsized and moved to a different state. As she scoped out the job market, she learned of an opening at Toledo for an associate director to help engineering students with job placement. She says she was drawn to the job in large part because her son Jonathan, now 18 and soon to be a freshman at the public university, would get free tuition. While she still pays a few hundred dollars for books and certain fees every semester, it doesn't seem to be such a big deal, "since the huge tuition expense isn't something we need to budget for," she says.
NOT AN IRA -- AN RA
Students themselves can help lower their costs by becoming resident assistants, or RAs, an option usually open to undergraduates after they get through their freshman year.
While the job involves some work and a commitment to be on call at certain hours and days of the week, it also usually comes with a break on room and board. (Average room and board at U.S. colleges and universities is more than $7,000 a year, according to research by the College Board, a New York education nonprofit.) Besides that, "it's a great leadership experience," says Katie Callow-Wright, director of undergraduate student housing at the University of Chicago. "It's a solid job you're able to parlay into lots of transferable skills" in the post-college world, she says.
At the University of California, Los Angeles, more than 300 students apply every year for 160 RA spots. In exchange for having to plan social and educational gatherings and be "on call" at least a couple of nights a week, students are compensated for a single room and a meal plan -- a package equivalent to about $10,000 a year, which is a far better deal than working in a typical work-study job. The program is open to students who are at least sophomores and who are in good academic standing.
Students can reasonably expect to commit about 15 hours a week to their RA duties, says Ms. Callow-Wright at the University of Chicago, doing everything from counseling individual students to engaging in group activities, such as intramural sports.
SMALL STUFF, BIG PICTURE
Cutting costs doesn't have to apply only to the big stuff: Being mindful of smaller costs and charges also can help. For instance, colleges usually charge a fee to apply -- somewhere between $30 and $75. Find out whether that fee is discounted or even waived if your student applies online. Smith College, Northampton, Mass., waives the fee for online applications. Also, if you have more than one child headed to college at around the same time, check to see whether a "sibling" discount is offered. George Washington University offers half-price tuition for a sibling, as long as both are enrolled concurrently. Randolph-Macon Woman's College in Lynchburg, Va., offers a Twin Grant, where both twins get a 15 percent discount in tuition if enrolled full time.
Above all, make sure the student is on track to finish in four years -- or even less. Students can receive college credit by taking Advanced Placement courses in high school. Or they can take less-expensive courses at a community college over the summer in order to fulfill certain requirements. Caveat: First verify with your degree-granting institution that those community-college credits are transferable.