The cost of attending college: Is it a need or a want?

By Allan Frazier

For the Deseret News

Published: Thursday, July 10 2014 10:31 p.m. MDT

Updated: Thursday, July 10 2014 10:31 p.m. MDT

Current discourse about student loan debt and the cost of a college education fail in my opinion to really help the student and their family decide how to best finance sending the student to a good college.

Butch Dill, Associated Press

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Current discourse about student loan debt and the cost of a college education fail to really help a student and his family decide how to best finance sending the student to a good college.

Yes, college tuition rates have increased greatly, student loan debt is staggering and the shortage of college-educated workers is disconcerting. How might a student and the family mitigate these concerns?

Suze Orman, a syndicated cable TV host, always asks show participants two questions: "Can you afford it? and "Is this a want or a need?"

Many parents begin very early in a child's life to decide where and how the child will attend college, even though enrollment is years in the future. When the time comes, the family may or may not have saved enough money or the child may not want to attend or be capable of attending college.

Federal financial aid usually becomes the fallback when best-made plans are not enough. Most families and students who report a yearly adjusted gross income up to $50,000 when they file their income taxes may qualify for part of or all the federal Pell grant (currently $605-$5,645 per year).

When students complete the Federal Application for Financial Student Aid (FAFSA) online, they are informed of the kind and amount of federal financial aid awarded. This would include the amount of the Pell Grant, if eligible, and the Stafford student loans up to $7,500 depending on class enrollment status. Most colleges provide additional grant assistance based on Pell Grant eligibility. Remember, the purpose of financial aid as enacted by the U.S. Congress is to provide financial assistance to those who can least afford to attend college.

"Is this a need or a want?" the parent might ask the student if, for example, the student has always wanted to attend a pricey private school somewhere away from home. A doctor in Orange County, California, decided that his 10 children would be required to attend the local community college before he would assist with their college expenses thereafter at any college of their choice. All 10 children plus their mother earned their college degrees. But can you imagine the thousands of dollars the family saved by making that decision? Need over want is important.

For those who live in the Salt Lake area, some numbers allow for similar consideration of need versus want. Salt Lake Community College's tuition and fees for the 2014-15 academic year are $3,468, the University of Utah’s total $7,876, BYU's range from $5,000 to $10,000 and Utah Valley University’s total $4,368. What if the student were to attend but commute when possible and not live on or near campus?

Another huge savings in college costs could be achieved if the student were to complete graduation requirements in four years or less rather than the current average of six years. Currently, on the whole, college four-year graduation rates are significantly lower than six-year graduation rates.

Another element contributing to increased college costs comes into play when high school graduates, although holding diplomas and even high GPA and ACT scores, must enroll in remedial math or English classes before being able to take the required classes at college in these subjects. Colleges spend a lot of money providing these remedial classes, which may or may not actually assist students. Students would be better able to limit spending in college by mastering the material while still in high school.

So for those students and families who want to reduce costs (and debt), these three steps will help: Choose a school you can afford, make every effort to graduate in four years or less and be academically prepared to enroll in required classes. And remember and apply this mantra: "Is this a need or a want?" Graduation from college will then come and go with less financial burden.

Allan Frazier worked as a financial aid counselor at Connecticut State University in New Britain for 10 years before retiring in June 2012 and returning to Utah. He also worked at Arizona State University for 19 years as activities coordinator.

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