Making buying college easier is more important than making it cheaper

These days, it feels like we have been conditioned to believe that the cost problem college students face is one solely rooted in affordability. Make it cheaper, or at the least, keep prices in check and many of higher ed’s problems get solved at once. Not the least of which being that if students could pay less, they would borrow less.

This rationale strings together both fact and fiction. There is no denying that the sticker price of a college education has grown by leaps and bounds over the past 30 years. At the same time, research shows that the net price people pay in tuition and fees — after grants are factored in — is, on average, nearly the same now as it was in the early 1990s.

And while it is true that students leave school with more debt today, the relationship between price and borrowing is not that clear-cut. There are some who borrow heavily to attend community college and others, like students who borrow very little to attend a public four-year institution.

The investment that colleges and universities make into providing students with a top-notch learning experience is massive (and growing). Between 2007 and 2017, student services spending grew nearly four times as fast as spending on instruction while spending on academic support grew three times as much.

Money and commitment at this magnitude ought to get more students into, and through, college, yet that is not what’s currently happening. New enrollments are flat between 2009 and 2019 are flat, as are first-year persistence and retention rates.

This is all to say that our models are missing something. Something big. Generous grant aid, continuing innovation and strong investment in the college experience at this scale should be paying at least some dividends, and they are not.

Lots of things may help explain this, but the simplest one is that we are not focused on the right problem.

Over the past several years, we have researched the friction points students experience in the process of buying a college education. We have looked at everything from the consequences for older and historically excluded students who miss out on state grant aid because they file the FAFSA later in the cycle, to the impact that award letter confusion has on students and families coming from different backgrounds. We have even partnered with Gallup to survey former students and identify how frustrating the college buying experience can be, as well as how it impacts enrollment and drop-out decisions.

Yes, affording college is a problem, but the real cost struggle students have seems to be with the process itself.

There is no other purchase that involves cobbling together loans and grants, federal and state aid, private and institutional scholarships or an array of tax-friendly savings plans. No other product requires consumers to fill out forms as early as October to attend school in August of the following year. No other product will not give you the maximum cost you will have to pay.

People routinely borrow a lot of money to buy things that cost more than a college education — think homes — and the typical bachelor’s degree recipient today leaves school with roughly the same amount of loan debt as someone who finances a new car. But nobody clamors for mortgage forgiveness, and most people will buy more than one car over the course of their lives without ever calling it a “debt sentence.”

Lots of things separate these big-ticket purchases, but one of the biggest is how transparent and easy it is to buy a home or a car compared to a college education. There is no guessing about how much the total cost of a car or home is. Rebates are provided before people choose and everything from verification of earnings data to loan underwriting gets done in hours or days. People know in advance exactly how much they need to borrow and exactly how much it will require each month at the start of the process, not years later.

It is the process of paying for college holding students back from academic success. While free dollars that make college more affordable are not always givens, the loans fueling the student debt crisis are exceptionally easy to obtain. Every form that gets filled out incorrectly and every deadline that gets missed makes an already laborious financing process increasingly frustrating. How can students take advantage of the massive investments colleges and universities have made in learning, when they are unable to figure out how to pay for it?

Nobody borrows for a college education with the intention of leaving before earning a degree, yet today there are more than 12 million borrowers in repayment that have no college credential to show for it. If we want more degree completers and more students to find value in their education experience, it starts by helping them achieve financial success first. Once we help students cut through the complexity of unlocking every available dollar, we stand a better chance of charting personal paths towards better outcomes for students and institutions alike.

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Carlo Salerno, PhD is an education economist and co-author of Student Financial Success: A Surprising Path to Fix the College Completion Crisis. You can also find him on Twitter at EDAnalyst

Note: this article first appeared on LinkedIn

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PhD. Education economist. Co-author of: Student Financial Success: a surprising path to fix the college completion crisis.

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Carlo Salerno

Carlo Salerno

PhD. Education economist. Co-author of: Student Financial Success: a surprising path to fix the college completion crisis.

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