Counseling Parents, With Some Help From a New Calculator

Newly Minted is a monthly series on Head Count following John Gudvangen through his first year as a financial-aid director, at Wesleyan University. We’ll check in with Mr. Gudvangen as he learns the ropes of his new position and faces challenges common to his profession, as well as some unique to Wesleyan.


John Gudvangen has given many financial-aid presentations over his career. But when he spoke at a recent open house at Wesleyan University, something was different. For the first time, some parents of prospective students came to campus equipped with printouts from Wesleyan’s new net-price calculator.

All colleges that participate in federal financial aid are required by October 29 to post net-price calculators on their Web sites, to help  prospective students estimate their out-of-pocket costs. As the deadline approaches, colleges have been wrestling with the best way to design their calculators — working to find the right balance between how easy their calculator is to use and how accurate it is — and wondering how the tool will shape the behavior of potential students (and of their competitors).

At the open house, Mr. Gudvangen spoke with one father who wondered what would happen to his child’s financial aid at Wesleyan as the number of children in the family attending college changed over time. That’s exactly the sort of question Mr. Gudvangen believes the calculator will help answer. “It’s an opportunity,” he says, “to actually use something over and over with different numbers and see what the results are.”

Even though it was the first time families had that opportunity to play around with financial-aid information before they arrived on campus, in other ways Mr. Gudvangen found the open house to be like others he’s attended. “It’s just fun to see families on campus, and you know that there’s that mix between excitement and worry,” he says.

As the financial-aid director, Mr. Gudvangen is responsible for alleviating the part of that worry that has to do with paying tuition. “If you don’t even make as much in a year as we charge, it can be a scary proposition,”  he says. “Partly what we’re there for, is to be calm, and thoughtful, and educational, to say we’re all about making a Wesleyan education affordable to your child, if in fact you demonstrate need.”

When prospective students visit campus, Mr. Gudvangen has found that most of the questions about paying the bill come from parents, since they’re the ones who understand the family’s financial position. “This is an odd time in families’ lives,” he says. “At some point, students probably need to know these things, but they probably don’t as high-school seniors.”

Mr. Gudvangen got a sense of how poorly some Wesleyan students understand paying for college when his office held an open forum for them later that same day. About a dozen students — fewer than he had expected — showed up, and some of the questions they asked were basic. One asked how students could get the money the college had calculated they would need for books and supplies. It’s a question Mr. Gudvangen says has come up ever since he began working in financial aid.

His answer? “The dollars are fungible. It’s not written on them, oh, here’s your book dollar, and here’s your pizza-money dollar. It’s more like if your aid exceeds what you have to pay the college, you will get some money back.” If not, you still benefited: Because the cost of books was included in calculating your need, you were eligible for more aid.

Mr. Gudvangen says he’s encouraged when students begin to take more ownership of paying for college. Wesleyan may be a liberal-arts institution, but that doesn’t mean students shouldn’t get a practical education, too.

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