Maddie Dill’s parents started her college fund early. They displayed a framed share of stock in the Walt Disney Co. on a wall of her nursery.
“We’ve saved from the minute she was born,” said her dad, Don Dill.
Now Maddie, a 17-year-old senior at Dunwoody High School, is applying to colleges and trying to decide which school best fits her needs and desire to study global health issues. She’s applied to 16 schools, ranging from Harvard University in Boston to Tulane University in New Orleans to Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, in hopes of finding the right one.
“I’m looking for a medium-sized school,” Maddie said. “Most of them are concentrated in the Northeast in large cities. I like schools that have their own campus that are in cities or are really close by to cities.”
Come April, she’ll have to choose. “April will be a difficult month,” she said.
And, like most high school seniors facing decisions about where to attend college, she’ll look at the cost of the colleges as well as the programs they offer. Schools she is considering cost as much as $60,000 a year, she said, so she’ll see what sort of financial aid they offer her. “Once you get all the pieces of the puzzle in front of you April 2, and you look at all the financial aid, then you look at what makes long-term sense for her,” said her mother, Shannon Dill.
The College Board’s Annual Survey of Colleges reported that the price of the average tuition fee, plus room and board costs for private colleges increased to $40,917 a year in 2013-2014, up 14 percent over five years. In public colleges, those costs increased to $18,391, up 20 percent over five years.
Students, parents and high school guidance counselors say that the rapid rise in the costs of college is making students pay closer attention than ever to the price of attending. Coupled with changing family finances stemming from the recent recession and slow recovery, some students worry about taking on levels of debt that mean they could graduate owing as much as their parents’ mortgage.
“You’re starting to hear words like ‘value’ and ‘return on investment,’” said Tyler Sant, associate director of college counseling at Holy Innocents’ Episcopal School in Sandy Springs, who worked in Emory University’s admissions office for three years before coming to HIES two years ago. “I think it’s been a gradual change over the last four or five years. Some of it is related to the uncertainty of the recession as parents pass that on to their kids.”
Ann Fountain, associate director of college counseling at The Galloway School in Buckhead, has seen similar changes in the four years she’s been working with college-bound students, both through jobs in college admission offices and at private schools in Florida and Buckhead.
“Families are a lot more concerned about value,” Fountain said. “Families that maybe five years ago hadn’t been concerned about finances have had financial changes in their circumstances. They’re looking for financial aid.
“Similarly, the families who are middle-income or upper-middle-income families … are becoming less and less able to afford the sticker price of college. These families are looking for merit aid. They’re looking for value: Is my student going to get a job after college?”
Peter Myer, a senior at Holy Innocents’ Episcopal School who lives in Buckhead, plans on becoming a doctor. He’s applied to eight schools, most of them small or medium-sized liberal arts schools such as Duke University and Davidson College in North Carolina or Washington and Lee in Virginia, and was still filling out financial aid applications in January.
“We have four sons,” said his mother, Deborah McCarty. “We’ll just see where he gets in and what kind of scholarships he gets and weigh them.”
Xavier Flournoy, a senior at Riverwood International Charter High School in Sandy Springs, said he’s looking at four colleges. He’s attracted to one, Goucher College in Baltimore, in part because it allows students to take courses at other, better-known and more expensive schools in that city, such as Johns Hopkins University.
“Cost is important to me,” he said. “I don’t want to get to the point of, ‘Oh, yeah, take the student loan. We’re just not going to tell you that you’re going to be in debt for the rest of your life.’”
Holy Innocents’ counselor Sant said students and their families also are beginning to look at additional costs they can expect, including the cost of graduate schools.
“You see more kids looking at college as a way to set themselves up for what comes next, especially those who are interested in graduate school,” he said. “They are aware of the rising costs of school and looking at graduate school, and trying to save some money. … This generation of students is no longer looking at a four-year degree as the end point.”
Flournoy says he’s already thinking about how to afford graduate school. “I just want to get an education,” he said. “I want to get my degree.”
Georgia’s state schools have benefited from more applicants as students look for value in their education. Some students, with an eye on graduate schools, think they’ll take advantage of the HOPE scholarship for undergraduate studies in order to save more for later schooling. “The HOPE came around at the right time,” he said.
At the same time, Sant said, some traditional four-year liberal arts colleges have begun to fight back. “A lot of these small schools and colleges have had a hard time trying to explain a degree that is intentionally broad in scope,” he said. “There are really great small colleges that do a great job teaching people how to think that are having to kind of justify that model.”
Some small schools have even tried cutting costs, he said, to try to attract more applications. Others have changed how they market themselves.
Of course, finances aren’t the only thing – or even the first thing – many students look at when trying to choose a college.
Melanie Taetle, a senior at Galloway, started with a list of 50 schools to consider and ended up applying to seven schools, including the universities of Wisconsin, Indiana, Michigan and Texas. “I kind of want to get out of Georgia,” she said. “I’ve lived in Georgia my entire life. I want to go some place new.”
She’s planning to study international affairs or foreign policy, so she’s looking for schools that are strong academically in that area. But she says she’s looking for a college that offers the traditional big-college experience. “I like schools that have big cultures, that are big in sports, schools that have a lot of history, a lot of character,” she said.
Come April, she’ll look at the financial aid offered by the schools that accept her and make her decision. “I probably will go to the one that costs least,” she said.
But when she was trying to decide which schools to apply to, she said, she wrote a list of five things she thought were important in the selection. Her list started with a strong international affairs program, and included a school’s student-teacher ratio and number of student organizations. Number two on the list? Football.
“I love football,” she said.