Affording vs. Investing: How we should be helping students plan for a college education.

One of the first and most pressing questions on the minds of most would-be college students and their families is, “How am I going to afford this?” This is neither new nor isolated; so many Americans are grappling with the issue of college affordability that Hillary Clinton has proposed free public college education as a piece of her presidential campaign platform. But ability to afford college isn’t the only thing students and their families are worrying about. “Is college worth it?” is the first predictive search term generated in Google for the phrase “Is college…”. David Theo Goldberg, in his recent Inside Higher Ed article “Coming to You Soon: Uber U,” addresses the source of this unease. He writes, “Once seen to be an investment in a reliably upwardly middle-class life for millions, higher education is no longer viewed as a presumptive public good.” In today’s climate, it’s clear that students aren’t just worried about how to afford college, but whether they should even bother attending in the first place. This points the way toward a more important question that, as higher ed professionals, we should always be striving to answer: “Is the educational experience provided by my institution a worthy investment?”

There’s an important distinction here between affording an experience and investing in an experience, but prospective students aren’t always able to see that difference on their own. There’s also an important distinction between actually being able to afford an experience and amassing many thousands of dollars in debt to pay for an experience. The average student loan debt for four-year colleges is currently $26,600, but that figure can balloon up to more than $200,000 for students at some schools. Which is why how we present our value proposition matters.

Consider how your experience dealing with a loan officer at Sallie Mae differs from your experience planning with an investment manager at Charles Schwab. Securing a Sallie Mae loan—or any college loan, for that matter—is a largely transactional experience. You often don’t even speak to an actual human being before committing to a loan agreement; you might know only enough about the process to understand that a loan is an immediate solution to a long-term problem (affording a college education) and so you visit the loan agency’s website, fill out an application for one and are awarded a credit result within 15 minutes.

Compare that to making the decision to meet with a financial planning expert who will, through a face-to-face conversation, ask you about what your goals are, how managing your money can help you achieve them and what you yourself deem to be among your life’s worthiest investments. In other words, a financial planner plans; a loan officer grants and collects on your debt. Rather than being purely transactional, a meeting with an investment manager is a collaborative experience that is directed, primarily, by your individual needs and wishes.

That’s how we should talk about investing in a college education—as a collaborative experience that will help students map out and achieve their individual goals. The key words in that sentence, by the way, are “collaborative,” “individual” and “goals.”

Collaborative:

A student shouldn’t feel alone in this process—financial planning can be overwhelming for most adults, so imagine how navigating loan, grant, aid and scholarship applications feels for teenagers. Here at RHB, when we work on financial aid communications with our clients, we never take it for granted that a prospective student will automatically understand what the FAFSA is or how to navigate it. Rather than “financial aid brochures,” we create financial planning guides with glossaries of key terms, easily understandable language that unpacks and explains different types of aid and frequent invitations for the student to meet with a financial aid officer in person or over the phone for help working through the process.

Individual:

Higher education is not and should not be a one-size-fits-all investment. Just as no two institutions are the same, neither are any two prospective students. We need to help students identify and understand what it is about our specific experience that will align with their individual interests, whether those are professional, educational, social or a mix of all three. Similarly, we should understand that their financial needs and abilities are likely as nuanced as they are, and work with them one-on-one to find the best aid package possible.

Goals:

To help a student understand whether or not the experience offered at your institution is a worthy investment for them, you have to understand what their goals are, and make them see how your offerings will help them achieve those aspirations. Say a student knows he wants to be a writer and has become taken with the romantic notion that living in Paris and working as an au pair for a year will provide him with better storytelling ability than a collegiate education will. Your job is to move him off his Moveable Feast daydreams and into a writing workshop where the professor teaches him how to do a close reading of Hemingway. Or say a student wants to develop the next Pokémon Go and thinks moving to Silicon Valley will better equip her to fulfill that ambition than studying computer programming. Your job is to point out that, at your institution, she can double-major in programming and business, developing the management acumen to steward her app successfully once she creates it.

In other words, a key part of helping prospective students understand the difference between affording a college education and investing in a college education is listening. Listening to what worries them, what they want, what they hope to achieve and where they see themselves. After you have listened to them, you can begin to advise them. But this isn’t something that can be done at them—brochures and links to government websites are not sufficient. It has to be done with them, meaning thoughtful (and preferably face-to-face) individualized conversations have to take place.

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Caroline Diggins

Caroline is the Lead Writer at RHB.