Why it's so hard to choose a college, according to families making the choice this week

For low- to middle-income families, spring is a season of negotiating financial aid with colleges.

Students across the country have been accepted to their dream schools—but in many cases, lower-than-expected financial aid offers are forcing families to attempt negotiation, or else think long and hard about whether accruing a great deal of debt will ultimately render a first-choice school less worth the investment than more affordable options.  

Writing for the New York Times, Ron Lieber shares the conversations he's had with several families struggling to weigh their options during this period of final college decision making—which many argue is much too short to allow for proper negotiation.

The families with whom Lieber spoke were all New York Times subscribers. The average household income was $99,000 for the digital subscribers among them, and $167,000 for the print subscribers.

The following are some of the families' most pressing concerns.

Mary Lou Smith has 17-year-old triplets—all three of whom have been accepted to various colleges for the coming year.

Smith, a part-time home health aide who is married to a man who receives disability benefits, thought her family would be eligible for a generous financial aid package—and a financial aid formula  she used had suggested she might owe nothing at all.

But when all of the schools that accepted her sons offered far less aid than expected, Smith realized her family would have to take on a great deal of debt in the form of loans.

Smith is currently trying to negotiate for a better aid offer, but she is worried time is running out. She told Lieber that the schools' communication to her has been consistently hazy—and all the emails have been filled with jargon.

Emily Schottland, another mother of a soon-to-be high school grad, is lamenting the implications of her family's current financial status. She and her husband only recently reached a combined income over $100,000—barely. 

Families that make $105,405 annually can only afford 41% of schools without taking out loans

But because they do technically earn a six-figure income, Schottland's family would not qualify for the free tuition plan in the state of New York, where they live.

Schottland's daughter was accepted to several private colleges, with which Schottland is now trying to negotiate for a better aid agreement. Schottland says most of the schools are asking her to disclose what other schools have offered.

"It's like the value of my daughter only increases to [the schools] based on how other schools see her," Schottland told Lieber.

Another subscriber Lieber spoke to, Kim Janco, worries that she and her husband might have to consider a giant second mortgage on their house to pay for their daughters' first-choice school. Janco's family was not offered need-based aid from the school, nor did their daughter receive any merit aid. Janco saysit is a very strong possibility her daughter will need to accept an offer from an out-of-state public university rather than her first-choice private school.

According to John Nelson, an EAB expert on financial aid, the difficult conversations these families face are unfortunate but not unexpected.

“There is a disconnect between how colleges assess a household’s financial need and what a family can actually afford," Nelson says. "The FAFSA and the underlying federal methodology for calculating aid do not consider things like household debt when determining what a family can afford toward college."

Nelson also says that cutbacks in state support for higher education have made universities more dependent on tuition revenue from middle- and high-income families. Federal and state grant aid programs generally focus just on low-income families.

Nelson points out that "when you couple that with low household savings rates and stagnant household incomes, it is easy to see how middle-class families can feel squeezed when trying to afford college."

Nelson also notes that there is a silver lining to these conversations. "At least these families [in this New York Times article] are asking questions about what they can afford now. Far too often we see families not address the affordability question until well after depositing when the first tuition bill arrives. At that point, families have far fewer options to make that college work financially" (Lieber, New York Times, 4/28).

Many students end up declining their dream schools. Here's why

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