The Trouble With Big Name, Big Priced Colleges: They're Not Worth It

Vanessa Bertrand always intended to go to a big-name, out-of-state school. She made the decision as a little girl, watching Cliff Huxtable on a rerun of The Cosby Show argue the merits of Princeton, Yale, Howard, and his father’s favored alma mater, the fictional Hillman College. The conversation that unfolded on that episode of the 1980s sitcom—a show whose run ended before she was even born—left a deep impression on the child, driving her to research universities before even reaching high school. And at 18, it informed the decisions she made about college applications and the way she ranked the most desirable universities.

“A school’s name opens more doors than many others,” Bertrand explains. “Not only did college open doors, but the school’s name did. So if you have Yale on your resume, it felt like an automatic yes, you’ll get a certain job. So I felt like Ivy Leagues would help me out more than certain colleges would.”

Going to college was never in question for Bertrand. Her father, Roland, insisted on it, drilling into Vanessa and her four siblings a belief that education would provide a path out of the blue-collar Boston neighborhood of Hyde Park. “A week before school, he would have us only eating fish since fish is good for the brain,” Bertrand says. “We would have this juice—it would say brain juice, I think it was a V8.”

And the night before the first day, her father would deliver a speech to the family about education as the starting point of one’s life. “You are doing this for yourself, no one else,” her father would say. “Just because you are doing well, never feel like you are owed anything. You have to go out and get it.”

Bertrand’s parents embody that advice. Haitian immigrants, they each work three jobs—her father at gas stations and her mother, Dieula Cadet, caring for the elderly. They put in long hours—evenings, night shifts, and weekends—to support their family. Neither has a college degree. Their children, they determined, would.

“Not only do we have to go [to college], we want to go because we feel like without it, it is a dead end,” Bertrand says.

So Bertrand packed her high school career with Advanced Placement classes in subjects such as biology and calculus, which she loved and easily excelled in, and threaded in as many extracurricular activities as possible. She served on tobacco-prevention and college-preparation clubs and on the debate team, and she played power forward for the Raiders, her high school’s basketball squad.

Her effort paid off. Bertrand graduated as salutatorian with a 4.23 grade-point average and an all-around record that exemplifies the type of high school career favored by college admissions offices.

Meet Dan, the reality-check counselor

While a college education was always her goal, like many of the more than 10 million who apply every year, Bertrand didn’t spend much time contemplating what it would cost or how much would be wise and responsible to borrow. That changed in October of her senior year when she came across Dan Mendelsohn, a spry, bespectacled financial-aid adviser from UAspire, a nonprofit formerly known as ACCESS.

Mendelsohn, fresh out of college himself, planted the first seeds of financial prudence for Bertrand.

“There’s a lot of rhetoric about, ‘You can go wherever you want. You can do whatever you want to do,’ and that is wonderful stuff to say, and very empowering, but you also need to be thinking about the financial side. And so many people aren’t,” Mendelsohn said.

Although he prefers to take up a whole 45-minute class when he can, his first encounter with Bertrand was during a condensed 10-minute talk to her class of 15, urging the students to start thinking about how much college costs as they determine which applications to prepare.

“A huge part of it is in the beginning of the year, setting up expectations that it’s not just about admissions, but it’s what you can pay for, so they kind of know the conversation is coming, even though it is not at the forefront of their mind,” Mendelsohn says.

He has his work cut out trying to track down hundreds of seniors every day at any of five different Boston high schools that vary vastly in socioeconomic background, academic culture, and school resources.

Mendelsohn’s carefully chosen words, attentive listening, and confident posture during his counseling sessions make him at once disarming and knowledgeable beyond his 23 years, helping him develop the student trust necessary to make an impact. “I have to prove to students that I’m looking out for their best interest from the start,” he says. “I’m not trying to push an agenda on them. I’m trying to get to know them and see where their needs are and give them the resources they need in order to be where they want to be.”

That October, in 2011, he urged Bertrand’s class to get a head start on financial planning, broaden their application strategy to include at least one “financial safety net” school —such as a state university or community college—and begin searching for scholarships and other financial aid.

Mendelsohn reinforces his message through a series of one-on-one counseling sessions that include frank discussions about a student’s finances. He goes into detail about how long it might take to pay back student loans to cover tuition at a pricey private or out-of-state school, which so many young people believe is necessary to ensure a profitable career path and a successful future.

Mendelsohn encourages students to game out what a typical college graduate in the student’s desired profession might earn. He then guides them to figure out how much would be left in the student’s anticipated budget to cover the monthly student-loan payment after standard expenses like rent, transportation, and food are deducted. The living costs are an educated guess based on the location. But the loan calculations are in real dollars and cents, based on the tuition and aid offered by a specific school, averaged at a rate of 5 percent over 10 years to balance out subsidized and unsubsidized loans.

“Our bottom line is: How can we put you in the best position to succeed in all ways, including, especially, financially?” Mendelsohn says. “When students aren’t sure about what they want to do, we are saying, ‘Don’t take on more financial risk than you can handle…. If you are unsure it’s just foolish to take out tons of loans.’ ”

The missing link

This is the conversation that is not happening nearly enough in America today. Personal financial education is not a part of the curriculum. The vast majority of high school guidance counselors are stretched so thin that they are doing well if they can remind students about college application deadlines, much less walk through which schools tend to offer more-generous aid packages or discuss the pitfalls of excessive debt loads.

This is true nationwide. A survey by lender Sallie Mae found that 84 percent of undergraduates feel they need more financial-management education, and it shows.

The costs of a college education are soaring, and with it the debt burdens that more and more young people are assuming.

In the decade leading up to the 2011-2012 school year, tuition and fees at private schools rose by an average of 2.6 percent per year beyond increases in the Consumer Price Index and by 5.6 percent per year at public four-year colleges, according to the not-for-profit College Board. To put those increases into perspective, if the cost of consumer goods had kept pace with tuition hikes since 1985, a gallon of milk would cost $18.65.

In March, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau announced that student-loan debt had topped the $1 trillion mark, exceeding credit-card debt.

The financial hurdle of higher education hits some people even before they start college. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, 10 percent of those planning to attend a university don’t make it to the start of classes because they can’t afford the first bill. The “summer melt” phenomenon, as it is called, rises to 20 percent for lower-income students like Bertrand. It’s something that UAspire is trying to stop.

For those who do start college, swelling financial pressures strain their career-path options and increase the risk that they will drop out. Students who drop out are four times more likely to default on their loans than those who push through and get a degree, according to a study by the Education Sector, an independent think tank.

What’s more, young people ages 18-24 are now spending twice as much of their monthly income on repaying debt than they did just a decade ago.

Only about a dozen groups, including government-funded agencies and not-for-profit organizations, are focused on college affordability. UAspire, Mendelsohn’s organization, serves about 10,000 students a year and boasts that 84 percent of the students it counsels make it past the critical drop-off point and return for the second year, compared with the national average of just 66 percent. It has ambitious plans to increase the number of kids impacted, but the national need is beyond its capacity.

In this endeavor, Deloitte is investing $212,000 in pro bono consulting work with UAspire to come up with a model for exporting financial-education training more broadly to existing youth mentors, such as school guidance counselors and Big Brothers and Big Sisters groups. The proposal could serve as a model for combatting the nation’s ballooning student-loan debt burden.

Vanessa’s plan

In Bertrand’s mind, her path was set by the eighth grade. Given her penchant for science and math, adoration for babies, and all of those inspiring lectures from her father and Cliff Huxtable, being an obstetrician was the only thing she could picture herself doing, aside from running for president.

At an IHOP restaurant a month before leaving for college this summer, Bertrand sits eating buttermilk pancakes cut meticulously into pie-shaped wedges. Her eyes light up when she describes a day she spent shadowing physicians at Massachusetts General Hospital during her junior year of high school. She recounts the excitement of observing two deliveries, one a C-section.

“It was cool. You don’t get to see that on a regular basis,” she says, as Tom Petty crows “I’m learning to fly, but I ain’t got wings” through the din of clanging silverware.

“When it was about to happen they would call me in,” Bertrand says. “You know a baby is about to come out when [the mother] is about 10 centimeters apart, so you have to get these measurements in your head and just know by your hands, this is 10 centimeters.”

The doctors impressed upon her how serious a commitment medical school is, both in time and money, not to mention lack of sleep. But it’s worth it, they assured her, if she’s committed to it.

That experience set in stone Bertrand’s career choice. “It just confirmed it for me,” she says. And it reinforced her belief that a big-name school was the first step toward her dream.

Crunch Time

Back on the front lines at the Urban Science Academy, Mendelsohn gave students and their families an open invitation early in the fall of senior year to visit him in the library to ask questions and start figuring out financial plans.

But Bertrand was still so concentrated on applying to her top-choice colleges that she was not thinking much about costs. “Financial aid?” she recalls thinking. “Can we get into schools first? I wasn’t prepared for that one yet.... I was thinking that could wait.”

A few weeks later, Bertrand checked in with Mendelsohn about her college list. He was relieved that there were some strong affordable options, like some solid state schools that would provide a sound but less expensive education.

“Do you know how much these schools cost?” he asked, eyeing more expensive picks—the colleges she was leaning toward. Howard University, for example, like many historically black colleges and universities, typically has little aid to offer. It had become Bertrand’s top choice after another counselor, not from UAspire, had dissuaded her from applying to Yale, telling her it would be too much of a reach academically.

Mendelsohn urged her to apply for scholarships quickly, fill out her financial-aid forms, and bring back her award letters as soon as they started cycling back.

Three days after Christmas, Bertrand sent her applications to 10 schools. When she heard back from Howard in January, excitement swept over her. What had become her top choice was the first college to get back to her, and she was accepted.

“I was like, ‘I got into my number one school… I’m going there.’ ”

Bertrand bounded into an adviser’s office to announce her news: She got in; she just needed to send in her deposit and she would be as good as set. She was going.

Mendelsohn, sitting nearby, overheard. He knew that it would be too soon for Bertrand to have received a letter from Howard awarding her financial-aid, which would determine whether this option was affordable. Schools have a habit of not sending out such information for at least a few weeks, enough time for students to become emotionally attached to the idea of committing.

Complicating matters, the award letters lack any standardization, and are sometimes downright deceptive, making it look like a student’s financial need has been met, when really they assume a smorgasbord of federal, private, and parent loans will be taken out.

“So when she got into Howard, I started saying, ‘Now let’s see your award letter. And it’s awesome that you got in there. Congratulations.’ ”

She didn’t have her award letter yet. As is often the case, it arrived a few weeks later. And as is also often the case, she thought the school was offering her enough money to go.

Mendelsohn broke down the costs and the truth began to sink in. Bertrand could go to Howard, but it would cost her $38,000 a year. Her parents could give her $12,000, but another $20,000 would come from loans. They multiplied that by four years of undergraduate study. Bertrand realized that going to Howard would be a heavy lift, especially when she factored in the cost of medical school, which typically leaves graduates with about $150,000 in additional debt.

“I was shocked.… I felt that I had to go wait by the mailbox for other schools,” Bertrand says.

Reliving that decision-making moment, introspection floods Bertrand’s voice and her wide, sloping brown eyes turn somber as she shifts her gaze outside one of the classrooms where she was taught that she could succeed if she just worked hard. Voices of teachers who lament they are stuck paying back exorbitant college debts that they now regret taking on echoed in her mind as Mendelsohn went over the costs in painfully fine detail.

Other award letters started to trickle in through February and March, with similar stomach-churning price tags from Spelman College, Xavier University of Louisiana, and College of the Holy Cross. The picture began to become clear: The state university option, which she had always brushed off as beneath her, could no longer be dismissed.

“The financial-aid letters started coming in after the acceptances, and the amount of money a lot of schools were asking for was a lot of money,” Bertrand said. “My parents told me to choose whichever one I wanted to go to, but I knew they couldn’t afford most of the schools, so I had to make tougher decisions.”

Mendelsohn never relented in his quest to ensure that she understood what the numbers meant, and how much bigger they would get over time. “He just came with the facts,” Bertrand said. “When the award letters came, he told me what it would cost, what I would have to borrow, what I would have to pay back. He never put in his own opinion. He just wanted me to realize on my own what it was going to cost.”

She finally made her decision in April.

“There was no way it was going to work. I could take out that much, but the thing is if I do go to medical school I don’t want to owe that much money,” Bertrand said. “State schools became the thing. Even though staying in Massachusetts was the last thing I wanted to do, it became something I had to do.”

Bertrand settled on the University of Massachusetts in Amherst. “As my sister said, if you are going to go to state school, it might as well be the best,” said Bertrand.

To attend UMass, she will have to take out $6,500 a year in loans—an amount she calls “manageable.” She received a merit-based John & Abigail Adams Scholarship from the state that covers her $1,714 bill for in-state tuition and a $5,245 grant from the school that can cover other fees and costs. Her parents will contribute $12,000, which she will need to cover room, board, books, and other expenses.

Mendelsohn seems proud.

“UMass Amherst is about as good as it gets in terms of being really affordable and a high-quality school. So I was super excited that she had that option, even though it wasn’t her number one choice,” he says.

Bertrand is grateful that she had the frank conversations she had about debt before taking any of it on. But she also says she should have thought about it even earlier. “I wish I would have come up with schools that were more need-based and gave more money because what’s the point of getting accepted to all of these schools and being so excited about it and then getting an award letter that says you have to pay this much, and then you can’t go,” she said.

“Without Dan I probably would have gone to Howard and then realized what I was paying after I had sent in my deposit,” Bertrand said. “That would have been a big mistake. I would have been stuck and in a bunch of trouble because I didn’t understand the financial aid.”

Pushing forward

As Bertrand was preparing to start college this fall, disappointment gave way to excitement.

“Can’t wait,” she said in a text the day before she moved into her dorm, anxious to meet her roommate, “Ally from Connecticut.”

She said that her father was getting anxious, watching too many movies set on college campuses, like Revenge of the Nerds, and giving his annual education lecture.

“Have fun,” he told her. “But don’t lose sight of your work ethic or the goals you set for yourself.”

Bertrand’s biggest regret is not applying to Yale; she says she intends to make amends for it.

“I was thinking the best way to get over my regret was to apply to Yale medical school, no matter what,” she says. “And then apply to a bunch of other ones to be safe. But Yale, I’m definitely going to try out.”