How to Talk to Regular People About What’s Happening to College Prices

November 04, 2015

Illustrations by Ron Coddington
The latest data on college costs — released on Wednesday — show that they continue to climb. But what’s a nonexpert to make of that news — and how can experts craft the right message for each group?

Every year the College Board’s "Trends in College Pricing" and its companion report, "Trends in Student Aid," attempt to put tuition increases in context. The data they contain help inform long-running policy discussions about why college is so expensive, and what might be done about it.

The Experts

Sandy Baum, co-author of the "Trends" reports, professor of higher-education administration at George Washington University, and senior fellow at the Urban Institute

Kim Cook, executive director of the National College Access Network

Nicholas W. Hillman, assistant professor of education leadership and policy analysis at the University of Wisconsin at Madison

Zakiya Smith, strategy director with the Lumina Foundation

For now, the country is full of regular people with a personal interest in what’s happening with college prices. Depending on their circumstances, those prices won’t affect them all in the same way.

The Chronicle came up with four hypothetical — but, we think, plausible — scenarios in which an expert might encounter someone wondering about college affordability. We then asked four experts what message they would want to share in each case. Their responses have been edited for length and clarity.


Scenario 1: Professional Parents With Children

Imagine you’re boarding a plane and the couple in front of you is talking about what’s happening to college prices. It’s clear from their conversation that they each work in well-paying professional jobs and are the parents of young children. What message would you want to share with them?

Ms. Baum: This is a family that I would want to help understand that college prices have gone up, but college is a really good value, and that it really matters where their kids go to college. And that they should start saving now and be prepared to give their kids the best possible opportunities.

Ms. Smith: Most parents in that situation think that they have to send their kids to a superelite — meaning superexpensive — private college. I would actually encourage them to look at the public four-year options in their state, and not to assume just because a college has a high price tag that it’s higher quality.

I would encourage them to look at the large set of new resources that are emerging about return on investment at different types of colleges, and to really see if there might be a college in their state that would provide what they need.

Because they likely could save, and they should save — and while they might not be able to save the million dollars that it might cost their children to attend Harvard with no financial aid, they may be able to save enough to go to the University of Georgia, or the University of Alabama, or Auburn, or any number of really great public options.


Scenario 2: Working Single Parent With Child

Now imagine you’re out to dinner with a group of colleagues. The waitress figures out you all are connected to higher education, and as you’re leaving she says college costs are on her mind as the single parent of a young child. What message would you want to share with her?

Ms. Baum: I would want her to know that there are lots of possibilities for people with limited resources to go to college. That there is a lot of student aid that will help her children pay for college, and that she needs to make sure she gets good information without paying for that information.

Mr. Hillman: I would ask if she is interested in pursuing college or if she is exploring it as planning for her child’s future. If she was interested in going to college, then I would be sure that she knows about grant programs, and about how to apply for financial aid, and to know what money is out there to help her get by.

Ms. Cook: I’d share two messages with her: that there’s always an opportunity for her to be a lifelong learner — and that if she has some college and no degree or no college yet, she should certainly be thinking about that for herself. And secondly, with a young child, again, be educated, be an involved parent who goes to all of the information sessions and learns about how to best support your child through school to get ready for college.


Scenario 3: Grandparent

You’re walking into the office and encounter a colleague who just became a grandmother for the first time. College finance is not her area, but she mentions she’s thinking about it a lot now. What message would you want to share with her?

Mr. Hillman: I would probably say that the challenges that children, young people face today are very different from her generation even though education is just as if not more important.

Ms. Cook: I would share with her that if she’s in a position to help that child save for college, there are a lot of good vehicles for her to use, and that she can also talk to her son or daughter, the parents of her grandchild, about their ability to save and what she might be able to do to help them.


Scenario 4: High-School Guidance Counselor

You’re at a party and are introduced to a high-school guidance counselor. When he hears about your job, he says it’s hard to even wrap his mind around what’s happening with college prices. What message would you want to share with him?

Mr. Hillman: I would probably focus on the fact that students the counselor works with will never even know about financial aid unless they at least apply for the Fafsa [Free Application for Federal Student Aid] and go through the steps with him. So instead of worrying about the prices and the affordability side, maybe look at something smaller like helping students get through the application process.

Ms. Cook: I would want to make sure that this school counselor knows about all of the tools to help students wrap their minds around college prices, that he’s up to date on changes to the Fafsa — making it earlier and simpler for students — and that he’s sharing that message with his students and that he knows about and shares tools like the College Scorecard so that students know specifically what the prices mean for a student like me.

Ms. Smith: I would want to tell him that he should think about joining groups, like NACAC [National Association for College Admission Counseling] or NCAN [National College Access Network], that are trying to help guidance counselors understand what’s going on with college these days and connect them to resources to explain that to students.

Beckie Supiano writes about college affordability, the job market for new graduates, and professional schools, among other things. Follow her on Twitter @becksup, or drop her a line at