November 05, 2020


Paying for College, 2021 Edition: Everything You Need to Maximize Financial Aid and Afford College. By Kalman A. Chany with Geoff Martz. Princeton Review/PenguinRandomHouse. $22.99.

     A college education is not all about money, but until the COVID-19 pandemic upended the college experience and the rest of most people’s lives, it was increasingly about money – that is, students and families had become more and more focused on the payback from going to college and less and less on the (now charmingly or perhaps not-so-charmingly old-fashioned) notion of becoming a “whole person” or “educated human being.” In 2020, as Paying for College, 2021 Edition straightforwardly states, “The COVID pandemic has created a host of perplexing questions that further complicate an already complicated student aid and college funding process.” Indeed, that is an understatement – which is probably just as well, since information about the pandemic changes so quickly that it is beyond the scope of this book (or any book) to keep up.

     For nearly three decades now, this money-focused series – originally and somewhat more trenchantly called Paying for College without Going Broke – has walked and talked families through the labyrinthine maze of affording whatever college a student decides to attend. In recent years, it has been increasingly profitable, so to speak, to be a member of some sort of under-represented group, since colleges, rightly or wrongly, see themselves as in the forefront of righting societal wrongs by educating – for free or at the lowest possible cost – students deemed to have been largely excluded from higher education in the past. That is one thing that has not changed: students considered, for any reason, to be outside the mainstream (whatever that is), are likely to attract considerable interest and considerable financial aid from many schools. However, Paying for College, 2021 Edition, like its predecessors, tries to keep the funding process neutral when it comes to such factors, focusing instead on the complexities of the various forms and funding methods available for higher education.

     Thus, although a long-term approach to college funding makes it easier for any family and is encouraged in this book, there is also a section on short-term strategies for getting more financial aid – and a section called “What the Student Can Do” – and neither makes the slightest mention of taking advantage of one’s race, background, ethnicity or sexual preferences. As a result, some of the material here is about as straightforward as it can get: students should “study like crazy” to be eligible for more financial aid at better terms; try to get college credits pre-college by taking CLEP (College-Level Examination Program) tests; try two years of community college before transferring to a four-year school; and so forth. These ideas are useful enough but scarcely revelatory.

     What remains most helpful in Paying for College, 2021 Edition, as in earlier editions, is the way it walks students and their families, step by step, through the numerous and often-frustrating thicket of college-funding-related forms. The line-by-line guide to FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid), some of whose questions can be answered in various ways that will have different impacts on student financial assistance, is revelatory and can have a major, direct impact on college costs. An understanding of how colleges use a family’s tax forms – and specifically which years’ forms the schools use – is also of significant value. There is a great deal of useful detail here, even though much of it is of the “it depends” type, with different scenarios and aims calling for differing approaches.

     But this year, students and families alike are likely to be more focused on pandemic impacts than on many of the usual financing issues. The whole question of whether to go to college at all in the near future, and whether to be on-campus or not if one does go, is a primary topic now, with a level of immediacy it never had before. Colleges themselves face financial dilemmas, since they have to maintain campuses, pay professors and support staff, and cope with a whole host of fixed costs (such as dorms and, importantly, healthcare services) that require them to have students physically present – and paying for the privilege of on-site instruction. Thus, many schools continue to insist that newly admitted students be on-campus for their first year – at the risk (how much risk, nobody really knows) of their and their families’ health. Navigating that issue adds yet another level of complexity to the usual financial-planning morass addressed in Paying for College, 2021 Edition. And there is no simple answer, no “right” thing to do in terms of college attendance, any more than there is a single “right” way to proceed to finance a college education if a student decides to get one. It is likely that one lasting effect of the pandemic will be downplaying, in the future, of the need for on-campus attendance, with distance learning (at a lower cost) becoming increasingly accepted as an alternative – and open to many more students, thus helping schools offset the lower per-student tuition they will be able to charge. But that bit of futurism appears nowhere in Paying for College, 2021 Edition. The book’s reason for being is simply to explain what financing possibilities exist now and how to cope with the many available financial approaches to an extremely expensive element of many people’s lives. Whether to engage in college at all, and if so in what way, is a matter for a different book. For families that know what their students want to do and are looking for a “how to do it” guide, this year’s book is every bit as useful as those from prior years – even if this year is so different from earlier ones in so many ways.

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