For many families, paying for college is one of the biggest financial decisions they’ll make. College tuition is the highest it’s ever been — and the financial aid process is anything but clear. American journalist Ron Lieber’s new book, The Price You Pay for College aims to take the black box of college financials and, “turn it lighter and lighter shades of gray.”
Of course, Lieber concedes, it is a messed up system. But he’s not out to fix it – he’s just here to help you and your family navigate it. “What I would really like to do is to blow it to smithereens. But this is not a blow-it-to-smithereens book,” he says. “I am taking the system as it is and trying to help people learn to beat it.”
The interview was edited for length and clarity.
What do parents get wrong about the price of college – the price listed on college websites?
Roughly 90 percent of people do not pay the full price. They get some kind of a discount. The number families will actually pay varies widely depending on how desperate a particular institution is to put heads in beds and whether it’s particularly desperate for some kinds of people more than others.
You don’t pay that list price because most families get aid — or as you call it, a discount. What are the two types of aid?
There is the need-based aid system running on one set of train tracks and then right next to it, in parallel, there’s the merit aid system – runs on its own set of tracks.
Okay, so as a student or family member – how do you approach that first type, need-based aid?
Every school is required to post a net price calculator. It’s often hidden – It’s not in an obvious place. So you just Google, you know, [insert college here] and net price calculator. There, you’ll be able to input your financial data. The net price calculator is supposed to spit back at you an estimate of what your family would be asked to pay if you were to get in. And so what you get is what the bottom line price would be and then hopefully a breakdown of how that financial aid might be divided up.
So the tricky part, once you get that net price. is to make sure that you understand what the components of that net price might be. For instance, how much debt did that school ask you to take on?
The other money you get from colleges is merit aid. I think of merit aid as money for being smart. But it sounds like this goes beyond academics?
It’s much more about who you are, about your profile, about grades and test scores and other kind of tangibles and intangibles. It may vary depending on the year, or the month and also how well the school is doing in its attempt to attract the right number of students paying the right amount of dollars per student.
Here’s another way to think of it: Imagine a really long list of all of the colleges and universities in the United…
Read More: How to Pay For College : NPR