Current Issues

When the math does not add up for students

Posted on May 6, 2011

There is so much national debate around college access, cost, and the declining number of lower income students able to attend college.  That debate gets played out in visceral terms in our finanial aid office and admissions office and sometimes in my own interactions with students and parents.

We go to great lengths to help families and we have students on full scholarships.  We had no tuition increase this year and greatly increased our aid budget.  Yet sometimes the math just doesn’t add up.

The following exchange was with a very unhappy mom whose daughter desperately wants to attend SNHU.  The family struggled to  pay even the inital $500 desposit and asked me to waive our policy, but that made me fear for the longer term ability to pay and the likely debt that daughter might eventually face if she could make hr way to graduation.

I’ve changed the names to protect identies here, but it gives you a little window into the pain that families and institutions face and points again to the impact of cutting back on grants to needy students and famiies.  If our Governor and Legislature thinks these grants don’t matter, they should sit in on a few conversations like this one:


Does this mean that my appeal did nothing? I always hear schools say that there is always a way to pay for school. How the school expects a family that pays 75% of their  income on rent to pay 10,000. is crazy. I feel as though I would have better served my daughters if we had stayed living in a shelter.

My response:

Dear Ms. Smith,

 I am sorry for your predicament. 

 I cannot speak for other schools, but I know we are very conscious of what students take on for debt (and virtually everyone takes on some these days) and we extend ourselves mightily to help.  We increased our financial aid grants from $14m to $21m this year and still it is never enough. 

 Paying for college is a shared burden, with students taking on loans and working on campus and parents contributing what they can and some federal grants for low income students (the Pell Grant) and then the university also helping out.  In Susan’s case, we are already doing $12,000 more.  Asking us to up that amount to $22,000 is just not realistic. Sometimes the math just doesn’t add up.

 It is precisely because we cannot expect someone paying 75% of their income to rent to manage the cost of an education here that I raised my concerns.  It would be far worse for Susan to start here only to discover one or two years in that she has to leave because the money doesn’t work.  Then she will have taken on debt and not have a degree from us, being arguably worse off than if she never attended.  It pains me not to see her desire to attend SNHU fulfilled, so it must be far worse for you as her mom.  But we do you and her no favor if we put her in a worse predicament two years from now or even if she graduates, but with a crippling amount of debt (and I do not trust high school kids, however mature, to realistically assess the impact of that debt).

 There is a path for Susan.  Community colleges are designed to be more affordable and provide access to higher education for students whose financial circumstances are restricted.  We make it very easy for those students to later transfer, thus keeping the cost of their total education much more within reach.  Susan may not be able to afford the school she has come to desire (us) even with all our help and loans and all, but she sounds incredibly capable and can get her degree.  If you have fought your way out of homelessness, she must surely have inherited some great amount of your tenacity and fight.

 My family was of very modest means and when I was in high school I had my heart set on Northeastern University and was accepted, but my family could not afford it.  Disappointed, I attended a much more affordable state college.  My wife has a similar story.  Susan’s situation is not unique, but she can be successful.

 I wish I  had a better response for you, Ms. Smith, but we are simply out of Susan’s financial reach right now and it is not her fault or yours, or ours. 



9 thoughts on “When the math does not add up for students

  1. Heather says:

    This topic frustrates me. There is an ever present burden of acquiring a college degree, yet when someone makes the effort to do so, they cannot because of financial reasons. Yet in order to be more financially stable, the college degree is necessary. When it comes to obtaining a degree and then applying for a job, someone with a University degree may very well be hired over someone with a community college degree. While they achieved the same education, I feel that employers look at a University degree as accomplishing something more. I would love to save money on my education and obtain the same education I do here at SNHU, but my fear is that I will have a more difficult time getting hired. So the fact that the economy imposes such a dire need for a college education, yet the government and local agencies cannot or do not help one achieve that is quite upsetting.

  2. Paul Leblanc says:

    Heather, I understand the frustration. What we don’t like to admit in our public discussions of higher education is that there is a pecking order and not all degrees are considered the same. The truth is that graduates of some four-year colleges woul not be acepted into the freshman class of other four-year colleges. So most people would argue your contention that they “achieved the same education.” A BA from SNHU wil be considered a better BA than that from other schools, but les than a BA from Harard or Yale or Bates or Bowdoin. The higher you goes up that pecking order, the more one pays for the status and perceived quality of the education. That is the underlying truth we don’t like to say aloud in our national discussions about higher education.

  3. […] The correspondence was one of a dozen or so personal pleas Mr. LeBlanc estimates he hears every year. But this time, Mr. LeBlanc posted an excerpt from one of Ms. van Doren’s messages and his final response to her (with the mother and daughter’s names changed) on his blog. […]

  4. Kathleen says:

    Kudos to you Mr. LeBlanc for having the courage and decency to have an honest conversation with the mother of this student.

    I work in the admissions office of a competitive and expensive private university. We are having similar conversations on a daily basis with our potential incoming students and their parents. It concerns me that these students are not being taught very basic economic realities by their parents. I learned to manage my expectations and desires very early in life by hearing that all-important word: “No”. As a parent now, I will allow that it can be a tough message to deliver, but perhaps there is no more important of a lesson that we can give our children.

    Again – my congratulations on being willing to deliver a tough message. I hope that your positive inent will be recognized at some point in the future.

    Best of luck to you and SNHU.

  5. Laura says:

    As a former employee of Pine Manor College in Massachusetts, a school in which at least 50% of the students qualify for PELL grants, I was proud to be part of a community that took steps by actually lowering tuition costs to assist lower income and first generation college students in accessing to higher education in a supportive learning community. Not every University can afford to take such drastic measures, but perhaps some more creativity is in order. Here at SNHU we too allow student’s access to a SNHU education for a significantly reduced tuition price in a supportive learning community, even when students may NOT qualify for a PELL grant. Not many institutions can say that! The SNHU Advantage Program in Salem gives students the ability to earn an Associate’s degree for a fraction of the cost of the Manchester campus. It can be the only option for some students, who live locally, and who realize once the financial aid award is received, that ‘the math just doesn’t add up’.

  6. Rich says:

    Your words hit the nail on the head. As a college counselor at NHHEAF we often wrestle with how to properly explain this ever common message to a “student who worked hard in high school and deserves the best”. Your words in your letter to the parent, although probably not the response she was looking for (it rarely is) was phrased very well. While some may read this and feel this is common for SNHU and that they are very expensive, I would follow up by saying that for a private institution, they always seem to have very competitive financial aid packages and the effort that has been put in to increase aid is noticable. My hope is that through the use of net-price calculators, students can earlier on, determine affordability before creating that emotional attachment to a school. In order for that to work 1) the school must put in a place a relatively accurate and informative calculator (kudos to SNHU) and 2) students must put in the effort to use it

    Dr. Leblanc I wish you the best during those tough moments

  7. Lisa says:

    Thanks for this wonderfully forthright, yet–in my mind–compassionate posting about an issue that many people refuse to acknowledge. As a college professor at a state-funded public university, I have seen many students struggle to pay their tuition; my own situation as an undergraduate required me to work full-time and attend school as a full-time student, but I wouldn’t wish that lifestyle on anyone. I’ve advised financially struggling students to take a semester or a year off, work, live frugally, and save for the remaining costs; a few students have taken this advice over the years and have returned to school with a gusto that made them unstoppable.

    Since I got married a few years ago and acquired a stepson, I’ve witnessed this dilemma from the other side. My husband and I put together a college fund that would have paid for four years at a public institution (with plenty of wiggle room if he’d attended the school where I teach), but my stepson insisted on attending a private university and used his entire college fund in three semesters. Both his mother and his father are allowing him to continue at the pricey school–a decision that I believe is only teaching him how to live above his means.

    Thanks for adding some reality to the issue. Your honesty and integrity are refreshing.

  8. Kris says:

    I just read this story via the Chronicle. I think your response was very well written, compassionate and realistic. As a high school graduate, I had dreams of attending a fancy private school and living on campus. My parents were able to convince me to attend a state school instead, which gave me an excellent education without the debt burden. I now have both an undergrad and graduate degree and a good career. It is unfortunate this family can’t see that you were trying to do ‘what was best for the student/family.’

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