Assessing College Affordability: COVID-19 Edition

October 5, 2020
A post by Stephanie Dupaul, Vice President for Enrollment Management

In the world of higher education admission, we talk about “finding your fit” a lot. We’ve even written about it this year! Fit can mean a lot of things, but one thing it definitely means is affordability. Affordability is not simply about how much a college costs, however, because the actual cost is rarely what is listed when you look up tuition rates. You could ask 100 students at the same school and discover that they are paying 100 different rates based on their financial aid and scholarship packages and, at some schools, even based on their major! Affordability is about what you would pay and about the value you receive in return.

I’m Stephanie Dupaul, and am the Vice President for Enrollment Management at Richmond. Today I’ve been given this space to talk a bit about affordability and college cost, particularly in the framework of the last six months. I have worked at a lot of different kinds of schools where I have learned that thinking about cost and affordability means not just considering what happens in a normal year, but also in a time of crisis. A crisis can make a school’s priorities (and its values) crystal clear.

At UR, we’ve always said that our students come first. This was evidenced by our response to the COVID-19 crisis in March. When we made the tough decision over spring break to close for the rest of spring, we didn’t leave students to fend for themselves. Our entire campus community sprang into action to assist students who needed funds for a last-minute flight home, pack and store belongings for students who did not return to campus, mail laptops and hotspots to students who didn’t have the technology to support remote learning, offer ongoing housing for students without a viable home option, and even provide a one-time payment to students for the money they would have earned in their on-campus jobs. But our support, and the value we provided, was not only financial – we also transitioned all of our student services, including advising, career counseling, tutoring, and student life, to a virtual environment. Our focus was supporting students so they could continue progress toward their goals.

Our focus on students is not only evident at times of crisis, but is part of UR’s culture and daily operation. We are committed to meeting 100% of demonstrated financial need for all admitted undergraduates, and are also need-blind in the admissions process for U.S. Citizens and U.S. Permanent Residents, because we want to ensure that Richmond can be a financial “fit” for all of our students. Other programs we offer ensure that Richmond is not just a school that students can afford, but also a place where students can access many special programs to thrive during their attendance. Programs like the Richmond Guarantee (which guarantees every student up to $4,000 to fund unpaid or under-paid summer experiences), special scholarships that make study abroad available for all students, and the services provided by our Office of Alumni and Career Services and the Office of Scholars and Fellowships help students achieve their goals of a rich undergraduate experience followed by successful outcomes in employment, fellowships, or graduate school enrollment. As you can imagine, these programs and services are more important now, during a crisis, than ever before.

So, when you are thinking about finding an affordable fit, and knowing that you will be making your college decision with the added angst and uncertainty of the biggest global pandemic of you and your parents’ generations, I’d encourage you to look for schools that put you first, and to think beyond the sticker price. One piece of advice I will give is to start having conversations about finances early. Like I said, I’ve been “at college” for my entire adult life, and I know that having the money talk is not eagerly anticipated. If you are looking at schools that meet full need, you can reach for the stars. If you are not, you need to have the money talk. Communicate early and often as a family, and have the best possible information at hand when you are looking at schools.

The gurus of blogging say I should close with a few pithy and thought-provoking questions or recommendations. I’ve worked in higher education for over thirty years, and have never seen a time quite like this one, but these not very pithy recommendations and starting questions are applicable in good and bad times.

  • Affordability is about much more than tuition. Beyond tuition, things like living, eating, study abroad, summer experiences, travel, and exploring the RVA food scene impact cost (a helpful breakdown of costs can be found here). Include these in your planning. Find out if schools are need blind, if they meet full need, and all of their costs – not just tuition, room, and meals but things like fees for the health center, for orientation, and even for laundry.
  • Ignore published rates for tuition. Use to generate quick cost estimates based on your family circumstances, and each school’s Net Price Calculator for more in depth estimates.
  • Use a crisis to see how much we care. Ask schools what they did last spring, when campuses closed. How did they help students get home, continue learning, and make the best of a suddenly very different environment?
  • Everything in moderation. Talk about loans. Are student loans part of your college plan and, if so, what is a reasonable loan expectation? Find out what percentage of students graduate with loan debt, and the average loan debt of graduates. Stick with the Federal Student Loan programs, which have very low interest rates and defer repayment until after you are out of school.
  • Plan to be out the door in four. A fifth year of college not only increases the cost of your education by 25%, but also postpones the start of your career (and income!) by one year. Find out if students graduate in four years, or five. Affordability is also about outcomes, so be sure to research what students do after graduation.
  • The least affordable college education is an incomplete college education. Be sure to look for student success metrics – graduation rates and outcomes including employment, admission to graduate school, and selection for national fellowships.