Considering the cost: Besides tuition, schools and students alike have much to think about

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Federal regulations, technology, staffing needs and keeping up with other schools drive increases in college costs.

Brigid Lawler, dean of admissions at Marlboro College in Vermont, said she thinks there's a tendency to look at peer institutions to make sure they're staying competitive. Some potential students may see a lower tuition and wonder what's wrong.

"We always tell them not to look at the sticker price," Lawler said. "If you get admitted, we do everything we possibly can to help with the cost. We are small. A great thing about that is we have the ability to scholarship in a way that a lot of other schools don't."

Between paying for services and tuition, Marlboro College students are looking at a $50,832 bill without paying into an insurance policy and without considering financial aid. That figure was $49,840 in fiscal 2016, $48,390 in fiscal 2015, $48,390 in fiscal 2014, and $47,570 in fiscal 2013, meaning there was a $3,262 increase over the last five years.

Health service fees change year to year but have stabilized to figures just over $700 since fiscal 2013, when the fee was $1,130. Housing has modestly increased from year to year, starting at $5,470 in fiscal 2013 then going up to $5,860 the next year and staying the same the following year. The number went to $5,830 in this current fiscal year and $5,948 in fiscal 2017. Meals saw a similar trend, going up by only $394 in the years since it was $4,460 in fiscal 2013.

Making it afforable

At Marlboro, not only are test scores and grade point averages considered. A rubric for finding students eligible for scholarships reviews things like "overcoming diversity" and community engagement.

And Cathy Fuller, director of financial aid at Marlboro College, will work with students on their financial aid packages then follow up and ask how it's all going for them. If it's not so good, she said she'll review any questions and issues to figure out how to make it affordable.

With the economy improving, Lawler said people don't realize a lot of parents had a difficult time in the last downtown and are still recovering. They may not be in the position to help their kids pay for tuition. They may not be able to get a loan.

"I had students I was losing over $4,000," said Lawler. "That's a heartbreaker."

In a college usually enrolling less than 300 students, a reduction in a student or two can easily be felt on campus. Currently, there are about 190 students and not a single one left Marlboro in December. Officials say that's unheard of.

Renaissance Scholars

Marlboro College had been looking at ways to make their school more affordable after experiencing difficulties attracting students with both geographic and socioeconomic diversity. Without such diversity, the campus would become less attractive overall. That prompted creation of the Renaissance Scholars program. The goal was to bring in 50 students from 50 different states in the United States, not excluding Puerto Rico and Washington, D.C. Full tuition is covered by the school.

An enrollment increase of 105 percent in the 2016-17 school year was attributed, at least in part, to the scholarship program. The college reported having 110 applicants from 34 states.

"We're seeing a tremendous shift," said Lawler.

"But knowing we're going to look at full need is attractive," added Fuller, saying students are coming because options around financial aid are completely reviewed and shared with the students.

Cost, time

The conversations not happening at some colleges involve whether the amount of debt and time it will take to graduate are being considered, according to Lawler, who was previously employed at the University of Baltimore and saw students coming through after going to three or four institutions. They were racking up debt at different schools and not earning credits because they were failing academically.

Part of questioning the cost is asking: Will you be a good fit? Will you graduate in a reasonable time?

"I feel people aren't have that conversation," said Lawler. "It's really scary to me that a college is going to be rated on how much money can be made when they graduate."

What's it worth?

There's always discussion around what a four-year degree is worth, said Alex Beck, workforce and education specialist at the Brattleboro Development Credit Corporation and an internship program coordinator. The BDCC assists businesses while launching initiatives for workforce and economic development.

"I like to say know what you're paying for in a longer term," he said, encouraging that people look at where their money will lead them. "No one can say 'X' amount of dollars is worth it. Medical school could absolutely be worth it but spending the same money with no knowledge of what you want to do, I'd say, could be ruinous."

Beck tells high school juniors and seniors and college students seeking internships that knowing as soon as possible where they want to go and into what field is the best way to manage the cost of education.

"It's not going blindly into education for education's sake, which is great if you want to go into academia but that's not a large percentage of what our young people are going into," he said. "It looks different for everyone."

If participants begin to feel a career path is wrong for them during an internship, Beck said they can realign their steps. But also important is figuring out whether a chosen profession can earn a livable wage and whether loan debt can be figured out. A four-year degree isn't always necessary. An associate's degree or another type of certificate can get a person's foot in the door then further training or education can help them earn more money.

Debt-free graduates

Community College of Vermont Dean of Enrollment Services Pam Chisholm said 50 percent of their graduates leave debt-free. The average debt of a graduate there is under $12,000, where most students graduating from four-year institutes in Vermont are racking up over $28,000. A full-time semester at CCV would cost $2,952.

"We save students a substantial amount,"Chisholm said, noting associate degrees are obtained at CCV where "very transferrable credits" can help on the road to a bachelor's degree. "We're the lowest-cost college here in Vermont."

Applauding the state's efforts in allowing schools to offer dual enrollment and more early college courses so high school students could get a jump on higher education, she said they can end up with 36 credits or more before even enrolling in a college.

To keep up with technology, Chisholm said the school's informational technology department keeps its eyes on the horizon of what's coming.

A different time

In Massachusetts, Williams College Provost and Philosophy Professor Will Dudley said technology definitely hasn't made things any cheaper. Twenty years ago, Internet infrastructure wasn't necessary. Now, the college has to provide more technology than ever before.

"Everyone needs a computer, high quality network, high quality storage and data services," said Dudley. "[The school] needs skilled employees to run and maintain all that."

Sixty percent of spending at Williams is on staffing, said Dudley, and a 7-to-1 student-to-faculty ratio keeps classes "very small" or "as low as you'll find in this country."

His school also spends $50 million a year on financial aid to support families sending their kids there. Tuition there only covers one-third of the cost of education. Approximately $100 million from endowment funds goes toward helping families afford college. And only top-earning families pay the $60,000 plus price tag.

"It's cheaper to come here than to go to University of Massachusetts for families that are making roughly up to $140,000," said Dudley.

Calculating costs

A calculator on Williams College's website helps potential students understand what they would be paying after they plug in figures related to total family income, mortgage, home value and whether the person lives with their biological or adoptive parents and if they have siblings enrolled in colleges. Parents' savings, investments and pension plans are also asked about. The calculator then spits out how much students and parents could expect to contribute, how much student work-study could pay, and expected student loan and scholarship amounts.

Regulations

Besides technology, Williams like other colleges has had to keep up with changes in federal regulations. Title IX, which ensures discrimination doesn't occur in a federally funded education program, is one area where schools must comply. Colleges must investigate, report and make judgments on sexual assault incidents. And they're also required to report statistics related to safety and security on campus.

"That's important work to do," Dudley said. "It does drive up the cost but we have to respond to what the federal government requires."

FAFSA forms

At Bennington College in Vermont, tuition covers approximately 60 percent of costs around education. The rate factors in benefits, staffing, utilities, fuel, campus maintenance and financial need.

"Nationally, I think there's the issue of health care. But I can't say we've experienced a spike because of it," said Heather Clifford, director of financial aid at Bennington College. "I think the college has gotten much better at absorbing it."

Right now, said Clifford, families are getting their W-2 wage and tax statements.

"They're trying to fill out their tax forms and miraculously turn it around to get their FAFSA [Free Application for Federal Student Aid forms] to us," she said. "It tends to be a crunch time when it's already an emotional time anyway."

An advantage coming

But an executive order enacted by President Barack Obama will require students to complete FAFSA forms with Internal Revenue Service data from the prior year. That goes into effect in October.

This will be of significant advantage to students, according to Clifford, as their financial situations will be known from the very beginning. Students will better understand how much aid they're eligible for over four years while they're shopping for colleges.

Under federal requirements, colleges must also include indirect costs associated with enrollment. Transportation and other items are explained for budgeting purposes, said Clifford, so students do not leave themselves short and can plan ahead for resources they may need.

More applications

Anne Moore, the financial aid director of Berkshire Community College in Massachusetts, said staffing in her department has increased as have verification requirements. More programs were implemented over the years, too.

"There's significantly more students applying for financial aid that have to be processed," Moore added. "There's a significantly larger volume of financial aid also."

She said the cost of textbooks has skyrocketed while Karrie Trautman, coordinator of financial aid and work study programs at BCC, pointed to the growing need for electronics like e-readers and printers in today's college settings.

Apply to a range

Moore said it is wise for students to apply to a range of schools, starting with dream schools that might be slightly out of reach financially or academically. But they should also be looking at more affordable options.

"It's risky if the family applies for just one type of school," Moore said. "We always like to point out attending community college for the first two years, taking general education courses, saves an enormous amount of money."

Going from BCC to a four-year school, savings can be in the neighborhood of $55,000 in one year alone. Reading up on the subject, Moore said she learned that "very rarely" are employers worried about where a bachelor's degree is earned. They are more concerned about the credential itself and what kind of job experience a potential new hire might have.

Full-time advantage

It's more cost effective for students to attend college full-time rather than part-time over multiple semesters, noted Trautman. Studies have shown students going part-time are incurring more debt.

"It actually becomes more expensive to piecemeal their degree," Trautman said. "Instead of choosing to work less and maybe borrow for a few years to get done with part-time attendance, there may be additional funding sources available for students at full-time attendance."

Contact Chris Mays at cmays@reformer.com or 802-254-2311, ext. 273.


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