Simply put, The Price You Pay for College: An Entirely New Road Map for the Biggest Financial Decision Your Family Will Ever Make by Ron Lieber is required reading for any parent navigating the finances of sending a child to college in the United States.
This book thoroughly digs into the details of college costs, financial aid, merit aid and how to balance the financial decisions of paying for college with the goals and aspirations of the educational experience. While it may be most useful for families with younger children, all families with children will find a lot of practical information.
For example, some of my favorite nuggets are:
College tuition has gone up but so have the discounts.
Financial aid may be need-based but merit aid is a marketing tool that colleges use for all students to lure all them away from competing schools. And there is much more merit aid than athletic scholarships.
If you were to save just $75 a month over 18 years in a 529 plan or similar, you could save $25,000 towards the cost of college.
Consider the cost of college as a series of fractions: save 1/3 before your child attends, pay 1/3 while the child attends and borrow 1/3. This fractional approach can take away some of the fear of affording college.
Financial aid offers, including merit aid offers, can be appealed with some professional communication and persistent outreach.
In addition to this practical information, the most helpful parts of this book might be the questions posed to its readers. By distilling the college experience into three primary objectives--learning, kinship and credentials--Lieber raises a litany of questions that families need to answer early in the college planning process to help evaluate what they can expect to pay and what they can expect in return.
For example, since the "student:faculty" ratio is such a popular metric in marketing colleges (and thus subject to manipulation), Lieber recommends that families clarify this metric by asking, "What percentage of class time is spent in smaller classes?"
Or when considering the return on investment of paying for a residential undergraduate experience, parents should ask, "How residential is the campus? As in, how many students live on campus and how long does it take to walk across campus?"
And my personal favorite: "How does the university measure student learning?"
Lieber does not answer these questions for the parents. Instead, he lists them so parents can be become more informed and aware of where their money is going. Some families might be willing to pay extra for a small, liberal arts, residential experience while it may make more sense for other families to pursue the community college route with a defined plan (which Lieber provides).
In addition, Lieber cites numerous books, blogs, podcasts and resources that are sure to help families navigate the "biggest financial decision" they will make.
While readers may finish the book with more questions than answers, the questions are personal and all parents should take the time to answer them in order to maximize the value of the cost of college.
Perhaps the only criticism I might humbly offer is the format: the content might be easier to digest if the nuggets, facts and questions were listed in bullet form. But that is just a personal preference. The book is easy-to-follow with direct and succinct points.
In sum, Lieber does a fabulous job of framing the balance between what families pay and what they can or should expect. If saving for college, paying for college or just college in general is anywhere in the future for your child, pick up this book and make lots of notes.
With two teenagers myself, this book spoke to me personally. And it's not just about the money. It is about what that money can buy when it comes to a university experience.
Many thanks, Mr. Lieber, for your insightful take on college financing and the value behind it. I am more equipped to continue this journey and more prepared to have frank conversations with my teenagers about college and its costs.