Before COVID-19, in Choosing College, Bob Moesta and I made what, to some working with students from low- and middle-income families for whom the price of college is a big issue, a startling recommendation.
For those students who are experiencing the Job to Be Done of “Help me get into my best school,” we suggested that before they make some choices about where to apply, they should attempt to clarify their vision for what they want and turn some of their unknowns about college into knowns.
We offer a seven-petal diagram—yes, we borrowed the concept from the ever-popular book What Color Is Your Parachute— to help students consider what is and isn’t important to them. What do they like—and perhaps more salient, what do they not like? What’s a non-starter?
As they go through this process, we recommended that students, at this stage, not worry too much about price. The goal is to figure out what types of experiences are best for them—not the specific college yet. The price tag will certainly enter the equation later and force them to make tradeoffs. Having a clear idea of what they want and do not want will help them make those tradeoffs.
To be clear, that doesn’t mean that price is unimportant or that students shouldn’t consider it when they apply. They absolutely should, just not in the course of figuring out what types of experiences do—and more concretely for an 18-year-old—don’t appeal to them. Once they know that, then price should be a paramount consideration.
But calculating price isn’t straightforward today. It’s also an even more significant factor right now, as many families’ finances have been wrecked amidst the pandemic and recession.
Enter Mark Salisbury, the co-founder and CEO of TuitionFit, which aims to help students and families factor in the price piece of the equation so that students can find the school that’s a fit for them—from experience to price. Since COVID-19 wreaked havoc upon society and the economy, TuitionFit has seen thousands of families flock to its site to get help making the responsible financial decision about college. Few are better positioned than Mark to offer some clarifications to our advice—and point students and families in the right direction around the high price of college, particularly in these times. I caught up with Mark to ask him some questions.
Michael Horn: First, can you tell us about TuitionFit?
Mark Salisbury: We launched TuitionFit a little over a year ago to give the public a simple way to solve the lack of college price transparency and recover some agency in the process. Students and families share their award letters through a secure portal, pooling their individual financial aid offers to create one big clearinghouse of actual college prices and financial aid offers. We verify and anonymize each letter, then calculate the actual price that each student is being charged by the college that sent the letter. The resulting dataset gives students and families the ability to compare prices, identify better options where they had not yet applied, negotiate with real leverage, and make more informed decisions about relative value and ROI. Students who share data with TuitionFit get free access to compare their own offers with the prices that similar students have shared from other colleges and universities. And now that we have multiple years of data, students without an award letter to share—families that are just starting the college search process, for example—can still find a list of schools that fit their price range for free, or can purchase access to see the actual pricing data.
Horn: What’s your personal story behind starting this? What was the first thought that you needed to help families tackle this issue?
Salisbury: I spent the first half of my career working in college athletics and admissions. One day I was giving a campus tour to a family when the dad pulled me aside and said, “My wife and I never went to college and we don’t have the money to apply to every school out there. Can you tell me what our price will be at your school so we can decide whether it’s worth it to apply?” I remember feeling pretty sheepish as I hedged and tried to explain that this just isn’t how the system works. For him, the issue wasn’t a pricing problem. It was a timing-of-available-information problem.
After I got my Ph.D., I spent the second half of my career as a researcher, academic administrator, and consultant trying to help higher education institutions use evidence to improve. As I worked with colleges in the Midwest, I noticed that the same timing-of-available-information problem was making it harder and harder for these schools to get enough applications to make enrollment. The combination of a high sticker price, a vague promise of a lower price (many of these schools offered actual prices of about 65% off their sticker price), and an application process that cost students money and/or time to submit, was actually undermining their ability to survive. At this point, I began to think that maybe we could use price transparency to improve the plight of students AND colleges and maybe even help the industry get to a healthier place.
Horn: You obviously want people to consider price much earlier in the college-choosing process. Reflecting on our advice in Choosing College to those seeking to get into their best school, can you add more context for folks put off by the order of operations of our advice? Where does our thinking converge and what did we get wrong? Or what would you add so people can make sure to make a sound decision?
Salisbury: Figuring out whether a college might be worth the price it is asking you to pay is a highly individualized exercise. Your book brings to light a key element of that equation that the college search community and college access researchers haven’t thought enough about. Another key set of variables in this equation includes the range of characteristics and features that a college claims to offer: major, size, culture, setting, alumni network, etc.—the elements you rightly recommend students who fit into the “get into the best college” category should compare and contrast in more depth. I think engaging in this kind of reflective thinking can be very useful.
But with the extreme variability of college costs today, the lack of transparency in college pricing, and the severity of financial consequences if the investment doesn’t pay off, it is almost impossible to disentangle a consideration of one’s preferences from the ramifications of price. With the growing skepticism about higher education, particularly among those who have the most to lose if they end up deep in debt, I can see how some might misinterpret your guidance and infer that these students shouldn’t care about cost.
To ensure students ultimately make the best choice, they need all of the relevant information at the very beginning of their college search. This has to include:
- a grasp of their own perception of the college “Job to Be Done”
- the characteristics and features each college or university offers, AND
- the actual price they would be asked to pay
So I would restate your guidance ever so slightly to suggest that as students think critically about why they might prefer one particular college characteristic or feature over another, they hold up those potential preferences against the possibility that one option might cost them more, maybe a lot more, to obtain. This way, the comparison of preference can be more nuanced in that it is no longer an either/or question but rather a comparison across a spectrum—price and value—that is far more grounded and concrete.
Horn: Can you give us an example of how misunderstanding the price of school can cause someone to make a suboptimal choice? Why is it so hard to know in advance and what does that imply for how someone curates their choices?
Salisbury: You can find situations like this all across the country, but let’s look at three pretty well-known universities right here in Boston. During the admissions cycle prior to the fall of 2017, Boston College, Boston University, and Northeastern University posted these annual costs of attendance prices on their respective websites:
- Boston College – $70,588
- Boston University – $70, 302
- Northeastern University – $67,957
If you were a middle- or lower-income student with the academic bona fides to get into all three of these institutions, you might very well decide that, although you like all three institutions, you didn’t want, or can’t afford, to pay the fees to apply to all three schools. So you submit applications to two of the three institutions and you are accepted to both. Congratulations!
However, we now know from the Department of Education data reported by those institutions to the federal government in 2017-18 (but only made publicly available in 2019), that the two universities you chose to apply to could have cost you about $7,500—about $30,000 over four years! Because the average actual price that those institutions charged their students was:
- Boston College – $26,567
- Boston University – $29,154
- Northeastern University – $34,246
As you can see, if you assumed that sticker price was indicative of which institution would be less expensive, you would have been very wrong. And if you didn’t apply to Boston College, you’d never know it. Moreover, if you were a student coming from a family with between a 0 and 30K annual income, the average actual prices that students paid reordered the list of least to most expensive institutions again.
- Boston College – $7,251
- Boston University – $15,661
- Northeastern University – $12,168
Hopefully, you weren’t cursed and were the low-income student who chose to only apply to Boston University.
The difficulty here is frustratingly simple. The college enrollment process involves multiple steps—that is, the initial exploration, a list of schools to visit and explore in more depth, the schools to which one applies, acceptance letters from some of those schools, and ultimately the choice to enroll—that require the student to eliminate potential options. Given the size of the expense and the variation in college prices, students and families need to know their actual prices at every step along the way. Without it, they can often end up in the conundrum described above.
Horn: Part of our argument boils down to figuring out what’s a nonstarter and what criteria are important, and then using price to help students make the tradeoffs between different choices. Building off your previous answer, can you give a sense of how you might counsel families and students as they figure out which college to choose?
Salisbury: For example, if a student thinks that co-curricular activities will be important in his or her college experience, I would ask if they are willing to pay more in order to attend an institution that generously funds them? If so, how much more? And I would ask if they would be willing to seek out those kinds of experiences in the surrounding community instead if it meant spending less to go to college?
Finally—and this is important—I would ask the student to consider, if those kinds of experiences are available in the surrounding community, is he or she organized, resourceful, and mature enough to take the initiative required to find, evaluate, participate, and get what they need to get from them?
I think it is critical to employ cost as a lens to evaluate these comparisons. But once one does that, it is also critically important to honestly consider the additional characteristics that the student will have to put into action in order to make that particular feature a part of their life during college. Taken together, this kind of nuanced thinking can really help students and families stay grounded throughout their college search.
Horn: Has any of this changed since COVID-19 hit? What’s been the impact of COVID-19 on your business and, in your view, what will be the impact on colleges and families this year?
Salisbury: Over the past few months, we have gone from busy to utterly swamped. We were already seeing lots of families that wanted to find a better college price, and those numbers shot through the roof as the economy imploded. But the combined jolt of COVID-19, the economic collapse, and the hurried switch to online everything has spurred many families to more seriously question whether the novelty of going away to college and the amount of money they are spending to do that is really worth it. I think a lot of families are finding it much more difficult to get to yes. These students aren’t giving up on college altogether, but I suspect that many of them will now continue their education at less expensive institutions closer to home.
Based on the survey evidence I have seen and the families I’ve talked to, I think we are more likely to see a substantial reshuffling than the steep drop in total enrollment that some are predicting. Students who had hoped to go away to college will enroll closer to home. The anticipated gap year awakening will only materialize among the most affluent who have the luxury of that option, and more students will combine online and in-person courses—likely from different institutions—to stay on a track toward graduating in four years.
Horn: What about the impact a year out—for the high school class of 2021, what will this all mean?
Salisbury: The comedian Steven Wright used to joke about being a peripheral visionary: he could see the future, but only way off to the side. I think the fall of 2021 will probably look far more like the fall of 2019 than it will the fall of 2020. However, I sincerely hope that the class of 2021—both students and parents—will take the opportunity that the current uncertainty presents to recalibrate and prioritize ROI after college over prestige by association during college.