Against a backdrop of growing cynicism regarding the cost of higher education and the Biden administration’s stalled attempts to cancel some student debt, higher education systems are buttressing efforts to guide families through a financial aid process that they say should provide affordable access to interested students.
Area institutions describe ever-growing ways they are working with students and parents to find financial paths through college. All say that while there might be unusual exceptions, their students do not tend to fall into unwieldy debt. Further, they say that families embarking on college exploration should not assume that a school’s stated tuition is what they will actually pay.
“I’m training my staff at every institution to not just be admissions counselors, but to advocate and educate financial literacy,” says Rob Alexander, vice provost and dean of university enrollment management at the University of Rochester since June 2020. He previously served as vice president for enrollment and communications at Millsaps College in Mississippi, and before that in administrative and teaching roles at the University of the Pacific in Stockton, Calif., and Tulane University in New Orleans.
Nearly every economist would agree that spending on high-quality higher education straight out of high school is the best investment a family can make, Alexander says. But taking out loans, finishing a few classes, and not getting a degree is unwise, he adds.
He puts much of the current student debt crisis on the shoulders of for-profit, privately-owned institutions that successfully lobbied in the 1970s to offer federal loans, then issued them without adequate loan counseling.
A worthwhile investment
UR tells families that if they can afford college taking out only federal loans—which feature low interest and opportunities for deferrals and cancellation for public service—the investment is worthwhile. The school cautions against private loans, which feature harsher terms.
While career paths will vary, data continue to support the value of American higher education, both for individual well-being and for democratic society. The Federal Reserve’s annual report, Economic Well-Being of U.S. Households in 2022, suggests that two-thirds of individuals earning a bachelor’s degree believe that the lifetime financial benefits exceed the costs.
“Most people valued the education they received, but with the benefit of hindsight and life experience, it was also common to think that different educational decisions could have been better,” the report states. “This provides an additional way to explore how people’s views on their educational investments relate to their current financial well-being. Of those with lower education, the most common change that people would make would be completing more education.”
Higher education also mitigates threats to democracy, according to a recent report by Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce. Researchers found that authoritarian preferences were weaker among those with higher levels of education, especially if they studied in the liberal arts—history, literature, sociology, and other humanistic investigation.
Study co-author Anthony P. Carnevale explains in Inside Higher Ed that postsecondary education “weakens the threats that trigger authoritarian reactions or reveals that those threats aren’t as menacing as they might seem.” Higher education usually means higher socioeconomic status, reducing economic instability, Carnevale says. It is also associated with greater civic engagement.
“Perhaps most important,” he adds, “higher education typically exposes students to people with diverse ideas and backgrounds, in many cases increasing their comfort with difference.”
Higher education costs have mushroomed along with technology, knowledge and personnel, says James Watters, senior vice president and treasurer at Rochester Institute of Technology. RIT, noted by the New York Times Magazine on Sept. 7 as a top college for economic diversity, will provide $350 million in student aid from its own endowments this year, 7 percent more than last year.
With roughly 30 percent of its students eligible for Pell grants—federal aid designated only for students of exceptional need—RIT performs a rigorous, ongoing review of costs and benefits as new academic offerings are adopted, he says.
RIT’s publicly posted cost of attendance for 2023-24 is $75,390, but “people can’t just look at the sticker price,” Watters says. Undergraduate students who finish with debt owe on average $30,000; their first-year salaries average $73,000, often after multiple job offers.
St. John Fisher University, recently ranked among the top 200 national universities for social mobility by U.S. News and World Report, said in a written statement that a third of its students qualify for Pell grants, and 87 percent of respondents to a survey of the class of 2022 reported finding a job or continuing education.
At nearby Nazareth University, Danielle Bucci, vice president for strategic enrollment, marketing and communications, describes an increasing focus on making clear what financial options are available.
“Most people don’t know the difference between financial aid and scholarship money,” Bucci says. “When they think about financial aid they think about loans.” This summer and through the fall, the university increased its offerings of “lunch and learns,” informal gatherings for families to provide details.
A lot of the factors affecting a student’s aid package are individualized, says Sara Kelly, vice president for enrollment management at SUNY Brockport. The school is continually refining methods of informing families, including customizing mailings, she says.
“In higher education we talk in lingo,” adds Robert Wyant, Brockport’s director of undergraduate admissions. “We understand that many of our students are first generation or maybe have had some college but no degree. Understanding what the aid process is like can be a challenge to a lot of families.”
Brockport’s written communications with families include explanation of every item of a bill and all types of aid. In open houses this fall the school is expanding sessions dedicated to funding education.
With almost half of its students the first in their families to attend college, Brockport dedicates a lot of resources to these efforts, Wyant says.
“When we are recruiting, we’re not just recruiting Brockport, we’re recruiting higher education as a whole,” he adds.
One of the facts Wyant shares with families is that while a job straight out of high school might be attractive, a college degree tends to lead to $1 million or more in additional lifetime earnings.
SUNY provides estimated salaries and demand for jobs, as well as information on paying for college.
The SUNY system boosted its operating aid by $163 million in 2023-24 to prevent a tuition increase, officials say. Assemblywoman Sarah Clark, D-136, who serves on the Assembly higher education committee, says the panel is keenly focused on ensuring financial access for students. She previously worked in Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand’s office as Congress began putting greater focus on financial transparency among colleges and universities.
The debt carried by many young people now limits their ability to buy homes or take career risks, Clark observes. So, when SUNY executives came to the committee last year requesting a tuition hike, the committee instead recommended a boost in operating aid. Clark says she hopes to expand the state’s Tuition Assistance Program, which hasn’t been revised in 20 years.
The Rochester City School District is working closely with local institutions to offer opportunities to families to see paths to college as early as seventh grade, says Crystal Clark, acting director of student support services. A consortium of colleges and community organizations meets monthly to fine-tune programs.
One result of partnerships is RCSD’s “FAFSA fests,” where experts from local colleges help families navigate the Free Application for Federal Student Aid. Further, Monroe Community College admissions counselors visit schools to help with financial aid or other questions. Among challenges a counselor might encounter is guiding a student whose parents don’t want to provide their financial information on a federal form.
The Urban League of Rochester provides scholarships and youth development programs. Fisher hosted ninth graders for high school study this summer to familiarize students with life on campus.
“The trend we are seeing now is that colleges are trying to work directly with us to break down any barriers … and we are working as a collaborative unit,” Clark says. “I think it’s important to get information to students and families as early as we can.”
UR offers financial education events in the city, in Monroe County and in rural areas throughout the region. Samantha Veeder, UR’s senior director of enrollment and financial aid, says financial literacy education continues through UR undergraduate years with instruction on everything from budgeting to learning the difference between credit and debit cards.
About 20 percent of UR’s student population qualifies for Pell grants, and the school boasts a relatively unusual practice of granting merit aid on top of federal and state aid. Most schools reduce other aid when merit is awarded.
Roughly 40 percent of UR’s class of 2023 finished with debt, Veeder notes, with the average amount $19,911.
If she could give one message to families, she would say that they should look for the best academic fit.
“Often, a family says, ‘I can’t pay $80,000,’ but they never would.”
Janice Bullard Pieterse is a freelance journalist and author of ” Our Work Is But Begun: A History of the University of Rochester 1850-2005.” Data visualizations by Jacob Schermerhorn, Rochester Beacon contributing writer and data journalist. The Beacon welcomes comments and letters from readers who adhere to our comment policy including use of their full, real name. Submissions to the Letters page should be sent to [email protected].