What We Get Wrong About Paying For College

Alia Georges
Blurry neon dollar signs on a black background.

Last month, the Office of Admission & Financial Aid held our very first Application Workshop Night, together with Babson College. Following sessions about the holistic admission process and how to write college essays, I was delighted to present on my favorite topic in the world: financial aid.

Now, I won’t spoil the entire presentation for you, but one thing this experience got me to reflect on is the way we talk about “paying for college.” When I meet with students and families about financial aid, the biggest things they want to know are, “How much do I need to pay?” and, more importantly, “How am I going to pay for it?”

Complete recording of "Financial Aid 101," including lots more information and helpful resources!

Just like in my presentation, this is when I launch into my three-pronged approach to paying for college, which involves three related but distinct components:

  1. Cost (starts at 3:14): This is the part most people already think to ask about. When investigating the cost of a college, it’s important to consider the entire Cost of Attendance, which includes all direct costs (such as tuition, room and board, and fees) and indirect expenses (like books and supplies, travel, and personal expenses) of being a student at that school.
  2. Financial Aid (starts at 7:14): Many people ask about financial aid, but I wish more would! Financial aid represents the resources available to help students cover the Cost of Attendance, including scholarships, grants, loans, and work-study.
  3. Value (starts at 26:35): Now here’s the one very few people ask about, though it’s arguably the most important. Value is all about asking: What’s the education worth to you? What will you gain, financially or otherwise, by attending this school?

I’ve wondered for years why this last part is the hardest to wrap our heads around. It’s not often talked about, and it’s different for everyone. But it strikes me now that there’s one very important thing I’ve gotten wrong, which might help explain what makes the concept of value so elusive: We always talk about paying for college, but paying isn’t the right word for it. What we’re actually doing is investing in a college education.

The reason this distinction is important is because paying for something signifies a transaction. The last thing I paid for, for example, was a tall soy flat white from Starbucks. It was like $5, and I was very satisfied with my purchase. It was delicious, caffeinated, and it warmed me up on a cool afternoon. I need all the comfort I can get during times like these, and I do not ascribe to the commonly-repeated idea that if people just stopped buying expensive coffee drinks, we’d all be rich (that feels like a topic for another blog post!).

But I wouldn’t say that I invested in my latte. It was a short-term pleasure, not one that I expected to yield future dividends. I drank all the foamy goodness in less than 30 minutes, and the caffeine wore off after a couple hours.

College is an entirely different kind of financial encounter. Of course, the price tag is much bigger (I don’t think I need to remind anyone of the rising cost of college, especially during an economic recession like the one we’re currently in!). But more importantly, college is an investment, not a transaction. Students and/or their families are investing in an education and experience that they hope will lead to favorable outcomes in the future, both financial (job opportunities, earning potential, etc.) and otherwise (intellectual engagement, personal growth, friendship and community, etc.). Depending on what you value, both your future salary and the memories of the nights you stayed up too late and laughed your behind off with your friends can be part of the return on investment of a college degree.

Though this is a small tweak in language, it really unlocks a totally different mindset. I’ve been talking about value for years, and I’m only now realizing why people haven’t been listening.

The author.

Alia Georges (she/her/hers) is Olin's Assistant Director of Admission & Financial Aid Counselor.

Posted in: Alia, All Admission Staff Blogs