Money

As college deadlines near, families wonder what they can pay

From left to right: Triplets Jake, Zachary, Lucas Smith, all 17 and high school seniors, and their sister, Tess, 15, at their home in Philadelphia, April 26, 2017. The children's mother, Mary Lou Smith, said all the colleges that accepted her boys wanted them to take out loans, even though a federal financial aid formula found that the family could afford to pay nothing at all.
Alex wroblewski | The New York Times
From left to right: Triplets Jake, Zachary, Lucas Smith, all 17 and high school seniors, and their sister, Tess, 15, at their home in Philadelphia, April 26, 2017. The children's mother, Mary Lou Smith, said all the colleges that accepted her boys wanted them to take out loans, even though a federal financial aid formula found that the family could afford to pay nothing at all.

This month, the New York State Legislature made the state the first in the nation to make tuition at the state's public colleges and universities free for many full-time undergraduates from families with income under $100,000 per year. The cutoff will rise soon to $125,000.

For all the program's limitations — including the requirement to live and work in the state after graduation — the most immediate response came from jealous families elsewhere who want their own states to step up. They may be waiting a while, since the National Conference of State Legislatures reports that just eight states have created anything like this. Twelve more have bills in the works.

Still, free tuition does not solve every family's financial challenge. Qualifying families in New York may still need to cover more than $50,000 over four years for fees, room and board.

The Institute for College Access and Success reported this week that schools generally are still asking families with the lowest incomes to pay a higher percentage of their incomes toward college than any other groups do.

There is another, very particular group of families that suffer at this time of year, too — people near and dear to my heart (and those of my colleagues). They are New York Times subscribers, people with median household incomes of $99,000 (digital) and $167,000 (print), and others like them.

Nobody sympathizes with them much, and they do not ask for you to do so. But hear them out — as I do in ever larger numbers each year around this time.

All week long, I spoke to them: at midnight as they worried aloud about the aid offers yet again; and at sunrise when I emailed them with thoughts and suggestions. A word cloud of their emotions about the system of paying for college would include large-font renderings of terms like "disillusioned" and "bewildered" and "disbelief."

Their own parents had sacrificed and sent them to the best colleges they could get into. Or, they had worked their way through school mostly on their own. But as this month winds to a close, they and their children still found themselves haggling for more aid based on their income, assets or academic accomplishments.

Many of the teenagers are disappointed: Yes, they got in — often by putting in the biggest efforts of their young lives — but no, they may not be able to afford to go to their dream schools after all. And as the deadline to make a choice nears, many families find themselves asking complex questions about whether they should pay five figures more per year — and six figures more over four years — to reach for a first-choice college that simply will not discount any further.

Families with five-figure incomes sometimes do quite well when it comes to financial aid, especially if their children are particularly bright or their schools are particularly flush. It also helps if a family has more than one child going to college at the same time.

Mike Smith, the father of triplets applying to college, holds a photo of his parents at home in Philadelphia, April 26, 2017. The triplet's mother said all the colleges that accepted her boys wanted them to take out loans, even though a federal financial aid formula found that the family could afford to pay nothing at all.
Alex wroblewski | The New York Times
Mike Smith, the father of triplets applying to college, holds a photo of his parents at home in Philadelphia, April 26, 2017. The triplet's mother said all the colleges that accepted her boys wanted them to take out loans, even though a federal financial aid formula found that the family could afford to pay nothing at all.

Mary Lou Smith was hoping that her triplet sons, who are high school seniors, might benefit from all of that. She is a part-time home health aide, while her husband is on disability, and the federal financial aid formula said that her Philadelphia family could afford to pay nothing at all.

Still, all the schools that accepted her boys wanted them to take out loans. Ms. Smith, who once worked as a bank teller and eventually rose to management, is furiously communicating with all of the institutions amid a haze of confusing financial aid award letters and jargon-filled emails.

She said she wanted as much time to negotiate as she could get. "I can totally understand," she added, "how a high-performing, lower-income student would get lost in this process, or not even know they should be applying for help."

She also has a question for her governor, Tom Wolf, a Democrat: Where is our state's broad-based free tuition plan?

J. J. Abbott, his spokesman, said that in a perfect world — one in which the legislature was not dominated by Republicans, as he put it — he would gladly provide even more support for working families. "Unfortunately, the legislative dynamic and the state's current fiscal situation are not amenable to such a policy shift," Mr. Abbott said.

In New York, families a bit beyond that $100,000 line that the state has drawn face their own set of difficult choices.

Emily Schottland is the mother of a senior who plans to enroll in college this year. She once worked in the arts, and her husband, Thierry Royo, is an immigrant who arrived in the country without family money or the career network that might come from graduating from an American college. They did not own an apartment until they were in their 50s.

Now that she is a teacher and he is a manager for a translation company, they only recently have achieved a combined six-figure income — and the increased retirement savings levels that are supposed to come with it for people who ever hope to stop working.

But now comes their daughter's college choice, between a branch of a state university and two private colleges they would rather not name, since they do not want to make waves when a better financial aid offer might still emerge.

They have already asked for more aid, but the private schools want to see what other schools offer first. "It's like the value of my daughter only increases to you based on how other schools see her, and not on the value she's bringing to your community," Ms. Schottland said.

Mary Lou Smith, the mother of triplets applying to college, checks her sons' progress in school online from home in Philadelphia, April 26, 2017.
Alex wroblewski | The New York Times
Mary Lou Smith, the mother of triplets applying to college, checks her sons' progress in school online from home in Philadelphia, April 26, 2017.

Both private institutions want the family to pay double what they would pay at the state school. When the family asked for help comparing the schools, a representative of one told the family that state schools were not real competition given how much more a private institution offers. "How on earth can you get away with making that type of value judgment and pass it along to a family that is actually having to do just that?" Ms. Schottland said.

She considered asking for data that proves the extra money is worth it, but she worried that appearing confrontational would ruin any chances of getting more money.

So will they bust into their retirement savings? Take on even more debt than the schools suggest? They're still not certain. "You're made to feel like somehow your choices and what you do now still don't add up to what they're supposed to," Ms. Schottland said. "That is just a terrible thing."

At least they received a reply. Many parents told me this week that certain schools refused to negotiate at all, while others simply did not respond. While you cannot really expect the decision makers to triple their staffs at this time of year, it is the schools, after all, that condense the haggling season into this small number of weeks.

The problem may in part be one of expectations. Parents who went to private colleges and entered (or emerged from) the upper middle class hope to send their children to similar schools. But of course, most of those parents are just a job loss, a health scare or a nonremunerative career choice away from not being able to save enough.

The colleges talk a good game about affordability. But once the teenagers do their part and gain admission, their families get lowball offers for aid and are daunted by the debt they would have to take on to make the numbers work. The emotional aspect of telling a hard-working teenager "no" when such an important transition is afoot only compounds the complications.

Sara Goldrick-Rab, a Temple University professor of higher education and sociology, and author of "Paying the Price," worries about the New York program and the assumptions that many overly optimistic students may make. Data suggests that at least 20 percent of students who are financially eligible at first will end up leaving the state and having their grants turn into debt.

She would prefer that the state refer to what it is offering as short-term debt that it will forgive if people stick around long enough after graduation. That probably does not have the same ring as "free tuition," however, for a governor like Andrew M. Cuomo, who may have national political ambitions.

His own employees are feeling the pinch. Kim Janco and her husband both work for the state, attended state universities and saved in the state's 529 college savings plan just as they were supposed to. But their daughter's first-choice private college found the family undeserving of need-based aid. Their daughter didn't receive the merit aid that many schools now use to entice families, hoping to attract high-achieving students who will bring up an institution's overall averages.

The family is flirting with a giant second mortgage, but isn't sure that would be responsible with retirement on the horizon.

The available state universities are not strong in their daughter's intended major, so they are now weighing offers from honors colleges at out-of-state public universities. They could pay more than they would in New York, but not so much that it would ruin them or burden their daughter with outsize debt.

It's a fine result, and they do not resent others who received more aid. But they lament the loss of a world in which public servants who have done well and played by the rules earn too much money to merit a break from their state and too little money to pay for scores of private institutions.

"I have learned much throughout this process," Ms. Janco said of her efforts to crack the system's code. "But I did not succeed in figuring any of it out."

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.