What to Pay for College

In all my years of writing about money, I have come across no consumer decision that inspires more confusion and emotion than the question of What to Pay for College.

Sticker prices at flagship state universities can now top $125,000 for four years of tuition, room and board for state residents. At many selective private colleges, students who began this past fall will pay $300,000. Discounts are available, but the financial aid system that governs them works differently at different schools and can be wildly unpredictable.

Once you have offers of admission and aid, you have to make a decision about value. When does paying an extra $50,000 or $150,000 for one school over another make sense? For a smaller or larger size? For access to professors or guaranteed internships? For an alumni network that is quantifiably stronger than others? And in considering all these questions as parents, how do we reckon with the guilt, fear, aspiration and snobbery that inevitably invade our minds in the process?

In this book, the culmination of 15 years of personal finance reporting for The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal, I’ll ask college presidents questions that families don’t know (or are afraid) to ask, put the surprisingly small amount of existing data on this topic into context, summarize the research that does exist about what matters and what doesn’t and pull the curtain back on how schools set prices.

But I can’t do it alone. I won’t capture the entire story without hearing from you. Will you please help me?

If you’re a higher education insider with insight to share, I’d love to hear from you. What do families ask most about cost and value, and where are they most confused or wrongheaded? What kinds of students get the most out of your institutions, and what lessons have you learned that you put to work when your own children applied for college and you had to figure out how much you were willing to pay?

If you’re a parent, an undergraduate or a recent graduate, how did you make the decision about what, if anything, was worth paying (or borrowing) more for? What did you get wrong? What do you wish that you’d asked or thought of? And how did emotions get in the way of clear thinking?

I’ll be spending the next 18 months reporting and should touch down in most major cities and many college towns during that time. I hope to meet as many of you as possible to talk about all of this and more. Please send email about any of this or anything I’ve missed. And if you’d just like to follow along as I report out loud, sign up here on the right side of this page for occasional email dispatches and progress reports.

Thanks, as always, for joining me on this quest.

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