Want To Avoid Mountainous College Debt? Tuition Is (Almost) Irrelevant

Printed from: https://newbostonpost.com/2017/06/24/want-to-avoid-mountainous-college-debt-tuition-is-almost-irrelevant/

Our first college visit was made in the spring of 2016, late in Abby’s junior year of high school. The Lincoln Center campus of Fordham University beckoned, amidst the bustle of Manhattan, Broadway a block away. Abby’s eyes widened with every step on campus, especially tours of the renowned theatre program.

During the presentation, one speaker did a little name-dropping, mentioning that alumnus Denzel Washington lives nearby and visits now and then to help teach the student-actors.

My daughter likes Denzel and I could hear the gasp at the sound of his name.

Fordham became the frontrunner. She also liked the main Bronx campus, so a decision would have to be made. But she likely would be a Ram.

Trips to Providence College and the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester did not elicit the same enthusiasm. Still, she liked them and would apply.

Then came a stop at The Catholic University in Washington D.C.. Ooh, she liked it. Good programs, including theatre; a homey feel; and the bonus of two siblings living nearby.

Catholic U was it, definitely.

Abby was accepted to all four schools. Catholic U did not detail its financial aid, but the acceptance letter announced a $23,000 yearly scholarship. Abby figured, reasonably, the scholarship plus need-based financial aid would have her packing for D.C..

Her oldest brother bought Abby a Catholic University water bottle. There was talk of buying a Catholic U hoodie, which is a symbol of ultimate commitment in our family.

I finally spoke up. No hoodie. I knew Abby wanted one, and I don’t often play the bad guy – the kids like to trace the letter S on my forehead, S as in Sucker. But I needed to see more numbers.

And, secretly, I bought a miniature Holy Cross pennant at a garage sale and kept it in my glove box.

Here, we get to the gist, and it is the first bit of advice I give parents who are college-shopping with their kids:

Go to the U.S News & World Report Best Colleges website and look up a school’s endowment and enrollment. Here are Abby’s four schools:


Providence:  $209 million endowment; 4,735 enrollment (4,201 undergraduates).

Catholic:  $319 million endowment; 6,521 enrollment (3,480 undergraduates).

Fordham: $665 million endowment; 15,286 enrollment (8,855 undergraduates).

Holy Cross: $722 million endowment; 2,916 enrollment (all undergraduates).


Guess who has more money to spread around?

The last figure to check is what percentage of a student’s financial need is fully met. (The need is determined by a federal financial aid application.) The U.S. News website does not list everyone, but you sometimes can dig around to get what you need.

Catholic University meets 79 percent of a student’s need, Fordham 80 percent, Providence 82 percent, and Holy Cross 100 percent.

Notice, I haven’t even mentioned tuition. From my perspective (and checkbook), all tuition is out of reach. Which school helps the most?

When all the financial aid packages finally came in, it wasn’t even close. Even though Holy Cross’s tuition, fees, housing, and food came to $64,000 – $6,000 more than Catholic University, about the same as Providence, and $4,000 less than Fordham – the total bill was far less.

Catholic-U’s scholarship was factored into Abby’s financial aid, so her total package was much less.

All four schools offered government-backed loans totaling around $24,000 over the course of four years.

If Abby accepted Holy Cross’s offer, that $24,000 is all the debt she would have. (And she plans to work on campus and take summer jobs to reduce that.)

For the other three schools, more loans would be needed, with the total debt ranging from $92,000 to $104,000. Much of that money would have been privately financed at less generous terms than the government loans.

What a wonderful gift for graduation:  a mortgage-size hole that will take forever to climb out of.

According to a report released in April by the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, student loan debt has reached $1.3 trillion. That is double the figure of 10 years ago, and is well above the $779 billion debt American have with credit cards.

The average student debt after college is $34,000, and that number is climbing.

The way Abby has it figured out, she will owe less than $10,000 when she graduates.

Educationally speaking, Abby could not go wrong with any of the four schools. Financially, there was only one choice.

She recently received her Crusaders hoodie.

I have four more kids to go through the process. We will look at options. State schools can be a bargain, charging a third as much, but with less financial aid. So we will continue to check out those endowments, and who is giving how much. The College Solution website lists 80 universities that meet 100 percent of a student’s need.

Abby just got back from her Holy Cross orientation. No Denzel Washington, or the excitement of living in D.C., but she fit right in. She will soar. Not having the weight of a six-figure IOU will help.


Kevin Thomas is a writer and teacher, living with his wife and children in Standish, Maine.