Three College Half-Truths and How to See Through Them

Three College Half-Truths and How to See Through Them January 17, 2017

photo-1465929639680-64ee080eb3ed_optOne of my children got the mail and was excited. This young adult had received a financial package that made her dream school possible. Hope and I were excited until we read the letter very carefully.

The school counted loans as student “aid.” At the end of our child’s time at this school, she would have owed one hundred thousand dollars. Let me state this bluntly: that school was scamming my child with four college half-truths. This is hard to say, but education has become a billion dollar business, even at Christian schools. Jolly professors are often insulated from the sordid money side . . . and it can be quite sordid: racism in decision making, grifting, empire building.

The worst part is student debt and it all begins with the slick marketing piece you will receive called a “student award” packet. Look for bogus diplomas, flowery language, lots of pages of slick sales. Throw that out. Read the bottom line. Use the same care with a financial aid package, you would use in buying a house. Get a lawyer to look at the fine print. Invest a few dollars now in what will be a tens of thousands of dollars decision.

Financial Aid Half-Truth: a loan is not help from the school. They are getting their money and you are (generally) paying back a financial institution for decades. Most of my former students have ended up in thirty year payment plans.

If you are going to a school like Rice University, some debt makes sense. If you are majoring in a career like Nursing, some debt might make sense. Otherwise, it makes almost no sense

Financial Aid Half-Truth or Cover Up:  there is a cap to how much you can borrow. The school often will not tell you this. I have known multiple students asked to leave school after their sophomore year, because they ran out of “aid.” How would you like to owe one hundred thousand dollars and have no degree? It happens.  It is rare for a school to make this plain.

An oral agreement from a coach, admissions counselor, or professor is worthless. If you want four years of aid, get it in writing. I could tell you horror stories.

Faculty Bait and Switch:  examine the undergraduate classes you must take. Some schools are selling you their lowest quality education freshman and sophomore year. 

This is called “general education, “the required courses,” or “the core.” Some schools do not give you a liberal arts education, leaving an eighteen year old to pick from a menu of worthless classes. Look for a school with a strong core taught by full time teachers. Don’t borrow money to pay for underpaid part-time help often burned out by teaching at several schools.

Many of those classes will be taught be underpaid, exploited “adjunct professors.” Of course, some adjuncts (I have been one!) are great and are experts with other jobs, but most should be full time professors and are being used by the school.

You can imagine what happens to quality.

Tip: Don’t just ask class size, though do ask. Ask if you will get “adjuncts” your freshman year. Ask how many, if so. If the answer is much more than one adjunct a semester, you may be supporting an education sweatshop using undergraduates to support the ambitions of a grad program centered school, a massive administration, or an expansion program.

Don’t borrow money to pay for future buildings you will never use!

For online classes (they can be good), ask if the professor is full time in the onsite school. Ask how many students they teach. One very prominent online program has hundreds of students per professor. Quality online has similar student teacher ratios to onsite. A dead give away is if you can google senior administrators bragging that the online program will build buildings or help onsite. Look. You will be shocked what you can Google.

Half-Truth Scholarships: Most scholarships are NOT scholarships in the sense you understand them. 

Most schools budget around a discount rate for students. They list X dollars, but budget knowing they will get much less. Ask what that discount rate is. You will know if you are really wanted. By the way, be wary of a school with a discount rate over fifty percent, that is a sign something is up.

Many times you did not win a scholarship, they found some way to get you a discount you would have gotten in any case. For example, if you have good grades, you “win” an academic scholarship. If you don’t, you might win a “leadership” scholarship. Many schools have other categories they use when it is hard to justify giving any money.

Be careful: often these “scholarships” come with strings. Many schools are now admitting students they know will probably not graduate to get their first year money. Ask.

Ask what the graduation rate of your cohort of admitted students is. I know of schools that will admit students (letting them borrow money), give them little support, knowing the grad rate is single digits. Don’t be that student. 

Bottom line:

  1. Ask how your “scholarship” is funded. For example, The Saint Constantine School has a fund that comes from a generous donor in the name of a Houston educational leader. That is real money, not just a discount. If you are just getting a “discount,” ask:
  2. How does that compare to the average discount at the school? What does the budget assume?
  3. Don’t be the person paying for other people’s financial aid!

Remember: You don’t have to borrow money for school. You should not borrow very much money for an undergraduate degree. My own rule of thumb when advising decades of students, including my four, was to borrow no more than the family would borrow for a new car for four years. In our house, that is about five thousand a year . .

Of course, one option is to pick a program like that of The King’s College at The Saint Constantine School. I trust King’s and we will help you get out of college without debt! There are some other great choices, but at least you know classical, accredited, Christian education is affordable.

My child did not borrow one hundred thousand dollars to go to school. Don’t do it either.

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