Paying for College Can Be a Challenging Puzzle to Assemble

Piece by Piece

Elms College Financial Aid Director Kristin Hmieleski

Elms College Financial Aid Director Kristin Hmieleski

It’s hardly news that college costs have consistently risen over the past two decades, outpacing both inflation and incomes. But there are a host of resources families can access to help bring those costs down and reduce the initial sticker shock. Still, putting the pieces together takes a combination of hustle, clear communication, hard work, and often sacrifice, all in search of what students hope will be a life-changing degree.

 

Bryan Gross calls them “success stories” — incoming students who weren’t sure they could afford college, but somehow manage to make it happen.

“You’ll see a lot of media attention and articles about sticker shock, the cost of tuition, fees, room, and board, and it makes families very nervous,” said Gross, vice president of Enrollment Management and Marketing at Western New England University (WNEU). “But we do work very hard to make college affordable for families, and the sticker price is not what they end up paying.”

But it doesn’t happen overnight.

“It is a lot of piecing things together,” said Kristin Hmieleski, Financial Aid director for Elms College. “We always tell students, ‘you’re not going to get this for free, so let’s look at the resources at hand. What can you get through federal and state aid? What has the institution already offered you by way of merit? What else can we offer based on need? Worst-case scenario, you may have to pay out of pocket or take on additional loans.’ It’s almost like a puzzle we put together.”’

It’s a puzzle that has become increasingly challenging over the past couple decades, as college costs have steadily risen, often outpacing inflation and average income. According to the College Board, which tracks these trends annually, tuition and fees at private, four-year instititions increased by 1.9% from 2016-17 to 2017-18, to an average of $34,740. Meanwhile, public, four-year institutions saw an average increase of 1.3%, to $9,970.

Those increases are substantially lower than the spikes seen during the Great Recession. In 2009-10, for example, private institutions raised tuition and fees by 5.9%, and public schools posted a 9.5% increase.

However, the College Board noted, students still shoulder a heavier burden this year, because even those modest price hikes outpaced grant aid and tax benefits. And that places more pressure on financial-aid officers to help families, well, assemble that puzzle.

The key, both Hmieleski and Gross said, is communication — and lots of it, starting early.

“We do open houses, and as prospective students are looking at Elms College, we talk about different resources they can look at,” Hmieleski said, noting that plenty of opportunities exist beyond the award package — based on academic merit and financial need — that the college puts together for each enrollee.

“They might not know every single website to look at, but we give them some hints about community resources they can look into,” she explained. “Do they belong to a church? Do the businesses their families work for offer scholarships? The students need to do some hunting themselves. Have they reached out to guidance counselors? They might know of some opportunities.”

It’s not an easy process, and it takes legwork and often sacrifice. But if the end result is a degree and a career pathway, families are more than willing to make the effort.

Knowledge Is Power

Gross said communicating with students starts well before they ever sit down in a classroom.

“Being a private institution, being well aware of the current state of the economic landscape, giving families direct and clear information regarding their financial-aid package is really important for us,” he said.

Bryan Gross

Bryan Gross says communication with families — both early and often — is key to helping them forge a strategy to pay for college.

To that end, WNEU started a program three years ago called Culture of Financial Wellness, which includes several components, starting with financial-aid counseling, during which officers help families navigate the process of piecing together available resources. Meanwhile, during spring open houses, financial-aid workshops are offered to inform and educate parents about the financial-aid process to help them make the right decisions for their student.

Following those are SOAR, the university’s Summer Orientation and Registration sessions, featuring presentations by Peter Bielagus, known as “America’s Financial Educator,” who provides information to parents about financing their student’s education.

The final piece of Culture of Financial Wellness continues after the student has joined the campus. The Freshman Focus program offers programming and talks to help students successfully transition to college life, including an overview session each fall on finances and spending designed to teach students about credit-card debt and making sound financial decisions in college and beyond.

“We want to educate students and help them understand the importance of living within your means,” Gross said. “That’s the circle of life — we want to help students for the rest of their lives.”

But that help begins at the financial-aid office, where the allocation of resources has been subtly shifting. This year, the College Board reports, federal loans account for 32% of all student aid, followed by institutional grants (25%), federal Pell grants (15%), tax credits and deductions (9%), state grants (6%), private and employer grants (6%), and veteran and military grants (6%).

“We put together a strategy for each student based on their academic performance,” Gross said. “We offer them scholarships, and of course federal and state grants typically get offered, and after that we have need-based grants we offer depending on their circumstances, and typically at the bottom of all that is federal work studies.”

Hmieleski said some 80 to 100 Elms students benefit from federally funded work-study jobs, 7% of which must be targeted at community-service work, such as the America Reads program administered locally by Valley Opportunity Council, in which college students tutor children after school.

“Unfortunately, federal funding has been so limited — it gets cut every year,” she said, noting that some students work at campus jobs funded by the college, while others secure part-time employment off campus.

Gross said certain enrollees benefit from special circumstances. “Veteran students are a population we work with; we help students directly apply for veterans benefits, and they might be eligible for ROTC as well.”

The bottom line, he told BusinessWest, is that students are given a full picture of what resources are available so they can figure out how to fill in the gaps, even if that means living at home.

“We want them to live on campus, but we want families to make an informed decision. It’s amazing how many families don’t even think about that,” he said. “We just don’t want families to be flat-footed when they receive their first bill.”

Beyond the Gloom and Doom

As Gross noted, he’s gratified by the success stories, but they’re not the whole story, unfortunately.

“To be honest with you, every college also has stories of families that fill out an application for federal aid, then come to us and say, ‘this is not our reality; we can’t afford to pay that.’ We work with families to come up with a plan, and it may work, but it may not work.”

In some cases, he said, students will instead opt to begin their education at a two-year community college. No matter what the outcome, though, he tries to make sure the decisions are made from a place of copious information.

“Families know that it’s not just a matter of crossing their fingers and closing their eyes, and somehow it comes together. You really have to have a plan, and you have to use college and community resources to help you through the process.”

No matter how much thought goes into a strategy, Hmieleski added, it’s impossible to de-stress the process of financial planning for college.

“No matter where you are in life, even if you have wealth, money is always stressful,” she said. “When some people hear about finances or anything involving money, their reaction is almost to shut down and not listen because they don’t feel like they’ll ever understand it.

“But we deal with a lot of first-generation, low-income students here at Elms; we are here to support those students,” she went on, noting that the college is invested not only in their ability to pay for school, but their academic success and keeping them enrolled. “OK, you’re here, you’re able to afford it — now let’s make sure you’re academically successful.”

But it begins with that first look at the unassembled puzzle, and all the decisions that go into putting it together. Hmieleski recalled one student — whose academic record was strong — that she worried about every fall, wondering if she’d be able to continue on, due to tight finances. But each year, the family somehow managed, and she graduated.

“I get goosebumps in so many situations when it looked like doom and gloom, like the student wouldn’t be able to come here, but we work on it,” she said. “And when they’re able to walk through that door, it’s a thrill.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at bednar@businesswest.com

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