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How much will you pay? Navigating the true cost of higher education

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The pandemic caused many students to delay enrollment in college, and costs can keep some away, too. Even applying for college can cost money for entrance exams and admissions fees.

High school and college graduation ceremonies across the country have wrapped up, and a new generation of students is preparing to begin their higher education. Or perhaps not. A recent report from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center shows 662,000 fewer students enrolled in undergraduate programs in spring 2022 than a year earlier, a decline of 4.7 percent.

Many of these enrollment shifts demonstrate the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on students who likely chose to delay enrollment. Cost also is often a large contributing factor. Just getting into college can be expensive, and unexpected costs can create a barrier. For students pursuing a four-year degree, many schools charge application fees to even determine admission. 

According to a recent study by U.S. News & World Report, the average cost to submit a college admissions application is $50. Some schools charge more than $75 per application. If a student applies to five to seven schools, as recommended by the College Board, that can quickly add up to over $250. Admissions application costs do not include the cost of taking the SAT exam ($60) or ACT exam ($63 without the writing portion; $88 with a writing portion). And these exams often carry additional fees, such as change of date and/or cancellation fees. Additionally, some colleges require an enrollment deposit that comes due after admission. Waivers of fees are sometimes available, either through high schools or college admissions offices, but this option may not be advertised to prospective students.  

Higher education administrators can be proactive by sharing information about fee waivers on school websites and social media platforms. For example, free college application week will run from Oct. 15-17 and is a great time for high school seniors or those hoping to attend college in fall 2023 to submit applications to reduce or eliminate out-of-pocket costs. But schools need to make this information available to prospective students, parents and student advocates. 

Students with disabilities who will apply for accommodations in college require diagnostic documentation. If their documentation is out of date — within the past three years for many institutions — the student will have to pay for an updated evaluation to complete their accommodation request. The out-of-pocket costs for these evaluations can range from $300 to $10,000. This financial barrier can deter a student from seeking accommodation, or even deter them from applying for and attending college. Not all students have access to health care to obtain the required diagnostic testing, so it becomes a lost opportunity.

At Rush University in Chicago, we recently assisted a student seeking information about financial assistance because of a health condition that resulted in a large medical bill. Fortunately, we were able to provide assistance from an emergency fund designated for such cases at our institution. But many students are unaware of such resources and support services — not just at our institution but at colleges and universities across the country. The nuances and barriers to higher education can be vast and confusing. 

A possible solution could be to provide access to specific information and coaching to students in high school to better prepare them for higher education. High school guidance counselors need up-to-date training on these issues, as do school social workers and student advocates. Providing accurate and timely information allows students to analyze what they need and then choose the path that is best for them — do they want to further their education or head straight to the workforce? 

We believe that, for many, the value of a college degree has proven worthwhile. The Association of Public & Land-Grant Universities reports the annual median earnings for workers ages 22-27 without college degrees was $30,000, versus those with a college degree generating $52,000. The potential lifetime earnings from having a college degree can surpass $2 million. In addition to the value of higher education itself — in terms of exposure to ideas and learning — other benefits of having a college degree include a greater scope of employee benefits, such as health insurance coverage with a higher employer contribution, which results in a lower cost to the employee.

Whatever choice a student makes regarding their future, an informed choice is always the best one. 

Marie Lusk is director of the Office of Student Accessibility Services at Rush University, treasurer for the Coalition for Disability Access in Health Science Education, and a Public Voices Fellow with The OpEd Project.

Jill Gable is director of the Office of Student Financial Aid at Rush University, chair of the Graduate and Professional Schools Committee with the Illinois Association of Financial Aid Administrators, and a doctoral student focusing on organizational leadership at Grand Canyon University.

Tags college admissions college costs fees SAT exam

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