Sunday, December 27, 2009

Sticker Shock, circa 2022 (or, Forget College: Dad and I are Taking You to Greece)

Mark Kantrowitz, founder of both the and web sites, has devoted his career to helping families understand college financial aid and assisting them in seeking out scholarships to help offset the rising costs of college—costs that are significant.

Need examples? The 2009-2010 cost of attendance (that’s tuition, fees, room, board, books, transportation, etc.) for UCLA, a public school, is $27,000 per year for a student living in the dorms. At Harvard, a private school, the cost of attendance is about $53,000 per year. Multiply those numbers by four years, and you’ll understand why so many of today’s parents feel faint when they look at the price tag of college.

But if today’s parents feel queasy, what about those of us whose children are still in elementary school? After interviewing Mark on my radio show in October and November, I decided our family really needed to follow his advice and get back into a regular routine of monthly saving for our two boys’ college. But first I’d need to figure out exactly how much college might cost by the time they graduate from high school, so we could calculate backward to figure out how much we’d need to save each month.

So off I went to’s “College Cost Projector” calculator. The results were shocking and have ultimately changed my view of where education will be by the 2020s.

The cost of four years at UCLA, starting in 11 years at a 7% per year increase from today’s cost? $252,326 for son #1, and $288,888 for son #2, who would start college two years after his brother (in 2023). Harvard? $495,307 for four years for son #1, and $567,000 for son #2. Our projected total for four years of college for two children? Between about $541,000 (if both go to public college) and $1,062,000 (if both go private). Um, what?

Does it make me a hypocrite to believe that education is priceless, but refuse to accept that my husband and I will need to fork over $500,000 to $1 million to send our two children to a four-year college when they graduate high school in the 2020s? Because truth be told, if I had $1 million to spend at that point, I’d hire a wise yet underpaid adjunct professor from some good college and buy five plane tickets (one for the professor and one each for me, my husband, and our boys) and travel the world for as long as the money held up to study ancient Greece in Greece, the Renaissance in Florence, Chaucer in England, biology in the Galapagos Islands, etc.

A more realistic vision of the future? Online education. The technology is getting better, the price is right, and online degrees are starting to gain more of a sense of legitimacy and respectability. Don’t get me wrong; I would love to have my sons participate in the quintessential college experience of walking along a grassy quad, discussing politics or Thoreau or the previous weekend’s Big Game, and getting a taste of pseudo-independence as they are responsible for their own time but not their bills or their own cooking. There are so many great colleges out there, and they offer a fabulous experience for their students. Until this past month, I assumed that our boys would someday head off to campus. But am I willing to spend more than $500,000 for them to experience that green quad? Frankly…no.

We’ll still save for college, but will hope that between now and 2021 that 7% per year increase will slow way down, or that somehow our salaries will keep up with or even surpass the rising cost of college (not likely, I know). But I suspect our family will not be alone in re-thinking what is important to achieve in four years of college and exploring and weighing all of the options for getting there.

If you are a parent, at what point would you say, “no” to the expense of a traditional college experience?