Guest column: College financial aid for the not so poor

Phillip B. Levine

With tuition at selective, private colleges and universities approaching $60,000 per year, how are students and their families expected to afford college? Although this problem is clearly the greatest for lower-income families, such high tuition levels might make the constraints facing middle- and upper-middle class families seem no less binding. A family with $100,000 in total income is far from poor, but may still face “sticker shock” when shopping for colleges.

Generous financial aid is available to help defray much of these costs. Yet, as considerable evidence shows, lack of information about options and the extent of available financial aid significantly limits prospective students’ college choices. Net price calculators mandated by the government don’t get the job done because they are too complicated and sometimes are even difficult to find.

That’s why at Wellesley College, we have recently introduced a tool that I designed, MyIntuition: Wellesley’s Quick College Cost Estimator, to help address this problem for lower-income families and for those whose incomes aren’t so low. Launched just over a month ago, our calculator enables families to enter just six basic financial inputs (total family income, home value, mortgage balance, cash savings, retirement savings and non-retirement savings) to arrive at a preliminary estimate of what it would cost a student and her family for her to attend Wellesley College. Our data suggest it takes just three minutes, on average, to complete.

The results obtained from our calculator are illuminating. First, roughly 90 percent of families in the United States with college-age children are eligible for financial aid at Wellesley College. Low-income families receive extensive aid packages. Families earning up to about $40,000 per year who have typical asset levels for families at this income level are estimated to pay $2,000 out of pocket. We intend this modest amount to come from a student’s summer job. These families are the target population of other interventions designed to increase access to higher education for lower-income students. Our tool is directed at that important goal as well.

Wellesley’s cost estimator provides similar benefits to middle- and upper-middle class students who often also face information deficiencies. The most common users of the tool are families in the $75,000 to $100,000 income range (although we collect no personally identifying information, we do record the financial characteristics they report). For these families, the median estimated family contribution is $14,000. This is far more manageable than the sticker price of about $57,000.

Since its introduction, Wellesley’s cost estimator has been very popular. In its first month of operation, we provided about 15,000 estimates to students and their families. This is for a school that typically receives 4,500 applications to fill 600 seats in its entering class. The extensive use of our calculator proves that there is tremendous demand for more knowledge regarding the true cost of attending college beyond the sticker price that is relevant for such a small share of the population. Over half of the users of our estimator have family incomes between $50,000 and $150,000. Even for those families in the $125,000 to $150,000 income range, the average estimated family contribution is $29,000. We recognize that this is still a considerable sum of money and our office of student financial services works hard to help families figure out ways to handle this. Yet it brings the estimated cost of attending Wellesley to a level that is often less than the cost of many flagship state universities.

Wellesley’s accessible and timely estimates of college costs for all families are an eye-opening new step in the college planning process. Many schools share a common underlying methodology and financial aid application process, organized by the College Board, in determining financial aid awards. Real opportunity exists to expand the Wellesley model to a larger number of institutions. With interest from other colleges and universities and support from the College Board, a relatively low-cost solution exists to provide simple, accessible information to help make informed decisions about college options. It should happen for the benefit of low-income students as well as those from middle- and upper-middle class families.

Phillip B. Levine is an economist at Wellesley College.