December 18, 2014


Paying for College without Going Broke, 2015 Edition. By Kalman A. Chany, with Geoff Martz. Princeton Review/Random House. $20.

     Anyone heaving a sigh of relief at being admitted to the college of his or her choice hasn’t looked at the bills yet. In fact, getting into one’s preferred college may be a lot less challenging than paying for it. Kalman Chany and Geoff Martz cite a highly interesting statistic in the 2015 edition of Paying for College without Going Broke: “According to a survey conducted by the Higher Education Research Institute at UCLA, 77.8% applicants to colleges in the United States were accepted by their first-choice school.” This probably indicates considerable care in selecting a first-choice school – considerable credit is due to students and families for that – but what it does not say is how many applicants actually get to attend their first-choice school. The percentage is undoubtedly lower, simply because higher education has become so enormously expensive. And that is the issue that Chany and Martz set out to handle in their book – demystifying the financial-aid process as they go.

     They do not really demystify it, though. As a matter of fact, after 300-plus oversized pages about financing one’s education, readers may be forgiven for feeling overwhelmed, frustrated and ready to throw up their hands in despair. There are so many tricks of the trade to getting financial help for school – and they are not necessarily tricky but are often highly time-consuming and elaborate – that even Chany and Martz admit they cannot explain all of them, much less show how each individual reader can apply the various approaches to his or her personal situation. Still, the authors’ guidelines are as clear and helpful in the latest edition of this book as in prior ones, and there is a lot – make that a lot – of information packed in here. One problem for families is that so much of the terminology itself is confusing and one-time-use-only, important for considering the financial realities of colleges but not for anything else in life. Chany and Martz do what they can to familiarize readers with FAFSA, FAOs, preferential packaging, “the automatic zero-EFC,” federal vs. institutional methodologies, the four “need” categories (extremely high, high, moderate and low), and much more, and their explanations are clear and as straightforward as it is possible to be; but the fact is that college financing is enormously complex and has a jargon all its own, making the study of the subject worthy of, well, a college course in itself.  This is not something for which many students or parents will likely have much appetite.

     Chany and Martz cannot provide the necessary stick-to-it-iveness to get through their book, but readers who do have the motivation will find almost the entire volume enormously useful in a highly practical and pragmatic way. Skip the self-serving and politically disingenuous Foreword by former President Bill Clinton and start with the honest question in the Introduction, “If this is so good for me, why does it feel so bad?” Typically, the authors give a plainspoken reason: the cost of four years in college is more than $150,000 at many schools, which “is enough to cause even the most affluent parent to want to sit down and cry.” After the tears – and really, there is no reason to hold them back; this is a huge expense, one of the biggest families will ever face – Chany and Martz show their usual acumen in talking readers through ways to apply for grants, scholarships, loans, what-have-you, while maximizing an incoming student’s attractiveness to schools in ways both subtle and overt. They warn that financial-aid packages last only one year, so families must be prepared to go through the whole process four times at a four-year school, and they offer suggestions for minimizing taxes, increasing aid eligibility, understanding financial-aid formulas well enough so you can use them to save money, and – in an especially useful section – choosing colleges that will give the best aid packages. Some of their ideas are particularly helpful, such as their recommendation that every student apply to a “financial safety school” that he or she is pretty much sure to get into, that the family can afford even with no aid at all, and that the student is willing to attend: “We’ve met some students who freely admit they wouldn’t be caught dead going to their safety school. As far as we are concerned, those students either haven’t looked hard enough to find a safety school they would enjoy, or they have unreasonable expectations about what the experience of college is supposed to be.”

     In a book as thick and complex as this one, there are bound to be some misfirings, and there are. Sometimes a statement is puzzling, and sometimes one is unintentionally hilarious: “The federal government has a great break for parent(s) in the household who…can file the 1040A or the 1040EZ tax form (or are not required to file a tax form at all because they are not required to do so).” Skimming over points of unplanned confusion like this one is fine, though, since so much of the book explains points of what appears to be planned confusion in the design and implementation of federal and institutional college-funding assistance. There is simply no way to make this subject easy, and it would be naïve of parents and students to think that the most important aspect of college planning is academic and/or geographical and/or career-oriented. All those factors are crucial, but unless a student can afford to attend a college that provides the academic and/or career focus that he/she wants, in a geographic region where he or she will be comfortable, the whole college experience may be ruined even before it begins. The practical, clear, results-oriented writing contained in Paying for College without Going Broke will scarcely make students or families happy with the realities of handling a college education financially: schools’ expectations of what families will pay in order to get any financial aid whatsoever are “designed to include money that you have earned in the past (assets) and money that you will obtain in the future (loans) as well as the income you are currently earning.” This is profoundly uncomfortable, and it is to the credit of Chaney and Martz that they do not sugarcoat the reality’s unpleasantness. If they cannot make it pleasing, though, they can at least make it palatable by helping families take as much control of college financing as possible. That is the bottom-line value of the 2015 edition of Paying for College without Going Broke.

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