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The College Solution: A Guide for Everyone Looking for the Right School at the Right Price

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College can be more affordable than you might think, as Lynn O'Shaughnessy explains in this introduction to her book.
This chapter is from the book

Introduction

A curious story appeared in The New York Times one day about the university that’s the academic equivalent of the Yankees. The article captured the concerns of faculty, who worry that the teaching taking place at Harvard University isn’t meeting the school’s own vaunted standards. In fact, a professor lamented that some undergraduates, after spending four years at Harvard, don’t know a single faculty member well enough to ask for a letter of recommendation.

Hmmm.

One student, who was interviewed, suggested that undergraduates ought to know that professors are too focused on research to put much effort into what happens in the classroom.

“You’d be stupid if you came to Harvard for the teaching,” a Harvard senior and a Rhodes scholar told the Times reporter. “You go to a liberal arts college for teaching. You come to Harvard to be around some of the greatest minds on earth.”

And he had more to say: “I think many people (at Harvard) spend a great deal of their time in large lecture classes, have little direct contact with professors, and are frustrated by poorly trained teaching fellows.”

Concerned about the quality of Harvard’s undergraduate education, a small group of the university’s professors cranked out a report that advocated for institutional changes that would place greater value on teaching. Whatever happens, Harvard’s institutional angst about what occurs in its classrooms is hardly going to dampen its star power among high school students. And that was true even before Harvard unveiled an incredibly generous financial aid policy that has dramatically cut costs for families who make even $180,000 per year.

So why have I begun this book by sharing something that should embarrass Harvard? Because the incident aptly illustrates one of the primary reasons why I wrote The College Solution: A Guide for Everyone Looking for the Right School at the Right Price. When many families begin their college search they assume that the Ivy League owns a monopoly on the nation’s best schools. Unfortunately, the media perpetuates this nonsense. A ridiculous number of books on college are dedicated to cracking the Ivy League even though the only ivy that most kids are going to come into contact with will itch and require calamine lotion. A mere .2% of the nation’s incoming college freshmen end up at the eight Ivy League schools.

What plenty of teenagers and their parents don’t realize is that there are many, many schools scattered across the country that will provide an education as good as or superior to the one they’d receive at the most elite East Coast schools.

Rather than worship at the Ivy altar, The College Solution is dedicated to the 99.8% of students, who head off to the thousands of other colleges and universities in this country. It’s about time that a book is dedicated to everybody else’s kids—and there are millions of them out there. The book contains advice for teenagers who are blessed with the brilliance of theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking as well as all the typical kids who would fit in quite nicely at Lake Wobegon.

One of the book’s overriding aims for this eclectic group of teenagers is this: helping them find the best academic matches possible, whether public or private, for the least amount of money. Parents and students, who use the book’s road map, will discover that college costs can be far lower than they imagined and their college options are more plentiful than they ever would have believed.

Many families, for instance, assume that they can afford only an inexpensive school—perhaps the state university or community college that’s nearby. The affluent, meanwhile, assume that they will have to pay full price for their children’s education because their chances for any kind of assistance are laughable. Plenty of families, regardless of their net worth, believe that only the very brilliant or the athletically gifted can win scholarships.

All of those assumptions are wrong. College can be more affordable than you might think. “B” students can earn merit scholarships from plenty of colleges, and even families with six-figure incomes can position themselves to capture financial aid.

In fact, many families who use the book’s strategies will be able to send their children off to expensive private schools for the same cost of a much cheaper in-state public school. Private colleges and universities today, according to the College Board, are discounting their tuition by an average of 33.5% for the students they want. Students who attend public universities, including prestigious flagship institutions, can also pay significantly less than the advertised sticker price. The average tuition discount for public schools, which cost less to begin with, is nearly 15%.

It’s much easier to shrink the college tab once you appreciate that colleges and universities are now pricing bachelor’s degrees in much the same way that airlines set their ticket prices. The passenger sitting next to you on the plane could have paid significantly more or less than you did for the identical ride. This same phenomenon is playing out on college and university campuses throughout the country.

The College Solution also urges parents and students to consider what is important in a college education. One of the chief aims of the book is to help students determine which schools are best for them and to encourage them to consider some overlooked academic gems. The book shows teenagers how to evaluate schools from research universities and community colleges to public and private liberal arts colleges.

Investigating schools, as you’ll learn, should go far beyond noting what ranking a school got from U.S. News & World Report, which happens to rely on dubious methodology. When selecting schools, a student also needs to be comfortable with the academic departments where he or she will be spending a great deal of time. You want professors who will engage students with innovative teaching, not approach classes, particularly the introductory ones, as an opportunity to wash out kids by dispensing failing grades. You’ll also discover how to find large universities that have worked hard to make their learning environments more intimate.

Most students will have only one shot at college, but too often they put about as much effort into finding the right academic matches as they would shopping for a new cell phone plan. Families often take shortcuts because they swallow the conventional wisdom that the higher education industry has pushed down their throats about what their options are. Your best defense against all this is to keep reading this book.

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