College options and the conventional wisdom trap


For many low-income students, seemingly practical choices are likely to spell disaster and permanently derail their dreams of obtaining a college degree.

As the cost of attending college continues to rise, paying for college is presenting an even greater challenge for a growing number of students and their families.

But for middle to low-income households, the problem is particularly acute as they search for a path through the maze of college financing options that avoids, or at least minimizes, the crushing debt from student loans that can slow their new college graduate’s upward economic mobility.

A recent article in The Atlantic asked a simple question that certainly crosses the mind of those filling out federal student aid forms, applying for scholarships, and searching for grants — Why is college in America so expensive?

Upon closer examination, the cost of attending college in the U.S. is so expensive due to a combination of staff salaries, lack of government regulation to cap tuition prices, state-level higher education spending cuts, and the uniqueness of the college education itself.

A college education is a highly specific service, not a product, and is largely immune to many of the factors that typically regulate costs and pricing in other areas of commerce — technological advances, consumer confidence, manufacturing costs, tariffs, etc. Meanwhile, the value of that service, earning a college degree, is substantial. A 2015 report from Georgetown University underscores a trend in the lifetime earnings gap that has been growing rapidly since the late ’70s, and shows that on average, depending on the major, college graduates will earn from $1 million to $3.4 million more in lifetime wages than those with only a high school diploma.

The value of a college degree is clear. And for many students, that value makes the prospect of saddling themselves with loan debt a risk worth taking.


In 1987 the average tuition at a four-year, private college was $5,520 per year. Room and board averaged $2,820, bringing the total annual cost for an undergraduate student living on campus to $8,340. By 2001 the average tuition increased to $13,770 and room and board to $5,450. This upward trend continued right through 2017 where average tuition totaled $29,680 and room and board cost $11,030, bringing the total annual cost for an undergraduate student living on campus to $40,710.

Adjusted for inflation, that same 1987 tuition would cost $18,640 in 2017 dollars, meaning there has been a 118-percent price increase in three decades.

Whether current undergraduate students are receiving an education that is 118-percent better than that of students 30 years ago is debatable. What can’t be argued is the fact that the cost of attending college is rising steadily to various degrees across the board.


For the family facing the high cost of college and the reality of a low-income household, but knowing the inherent value of their student obtaining a degree, some analysis and planning must take place. While the costs of tuition and room and board are fixed, the latter is optional.

If a student lives at home and commutes to school, the family could save thousands of dollars. The College Board reports that the average cost of room and board in 2017–2018 ranged from $10,800 at four-year public schools to $12,210 at private schools.

If the student gets a job while enrolled in college, the wages earned could offset some of the tuition cost.

Conventional wisdom suggests the combination of living at home and holding a job while attending college are perfectly reasonable concessions to make if the goals are to reduce expenses and graduate with as little student loan debt as possible. But for many students, especially those categorized as low-income, the seemingly practical choices are likely to spell disaster and permanently derail their dreams of obtaining a college degree.


A study from the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce shows that 70-percent of college students hold jobs. However, it also finds that the jobs held by students coming from families with higher incomes tend to pay more, be more related to their field of study, and require fewer hours. Conversely, jobs held by lower-income students tend to pay less, be unrelated to their field of study, and require many more work hours.

Researchers found that these low-income working learners are disproportionately Latino, Black, women, or the first in their families to attend college. Because these students lack a financial safety net, they often must work more hours at their low-paying jobs to afford to attend school. But working longer hours means these student workers are more likely to experience a decline in academic performance when the average number of hours they work approaches or exceeds 40 hours per week — increasing the likelihood that they will not graduate.


Another option often considered by low-income students is enrolling in a two-year community college program to save money and get basic courses out of the way before transferring to a four-year college to earn a bachelor’s degree. According to the Georgetown study, low-income students are more likely to enroll in certificate programs and to attend either two-year public or for-profit colleges than their higher-income peers who are more likely to attend selective four-year colleges to earn a bachelor’s degree.

The Community College Research Center at Columbia University reports that 44-percent of low-income students attend community colleges as their first college after high school, compared with only 15-percent of high-income students. Similarly, 38-percent of students whose parents did not graduate from college choose community colleges as their first institution, compared with 20-percent of students whose parents graduated from college.

Low-income and minority students tend to enroll in community colleges at higher rates. According to the American Association of Community Colleges, the percentage of first-time community college students who identified as Hispanic increased from 13-percent in 2001 to 26-percent in 2016. The population of Black first-time students during that same time period remained flat, while the percentage of white first-time students has declined from 61-percent to about 44-percent. First-generation-to-college students comprise 36-percent of community college attendees.

A study by the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center found that 64-percent of students who earned an associate degree at a community college transferred to a four-year institution. Of that group, only 41-percent went on to earn a bachelor’s degree within the next six years.

Much like working their way through college, attending a two-year community college to save money and complete some general education courses sounds like the practical thing to do, but, in fact, is more likely to lead to dropping out than a bachelor’s degree.


With room and board and meal expenses accounting for at least $10,000 of the annual cost of attendance, living at home and commuting to school seems like another practical, cost-saving measure. While both family and student will get some financial relief in exchange for the commute, studies show that students living off-campus are less likely to graduate in six years than their peers residing in dormitories.

An analysis of the National Survey of Student Engagement at Indiana University found that students who live on campus spend significantly more time preparing for classes, participating in collaborative learning activities, performing community service, and have higher quality interactions with faculty and students with different religious beliefs, racial and economic backgrounds, and political views than those who live beyond walking distance from school.

Schools within the California State University system are including adding more on-campus housing as part of an overall strategy to raise graduation rates.

“Living on campus increases a student’s engagement with the university,” said Jimmy Moore, assistant director for housing and residence life at the University of Central Florida. “Residents are more likely to have friends, connect to resources, get involved in organizations and go to class. In addition to a supportive community feeling, on-campus communities also provide special programs, resources, workshops and access to academic advisors.”

The University of Maryland, College Park reports students living on campus carry higher grade point averages and graduate at rates 22-percent higher than their nonresidential peers.

Ginny Arthur, associate director of residence at Iowa State University, notes similar results for students living on campus. “On-campus housing provides an environment that supports academic and personal success,” she said. “Students who live in the residence halls feel connected and get better acclimated to the university very quickly, resulting in them feeling more engaged both academically and personally. It’s what I believe leads to higher graduation and return rates.”


At CDI, our primary mission is to help low-income, first-generation-to-college students graduate from highly selective four-year colleges and universities. Since 2007 97-percent of CDI Scholars have graduated from college within six years.

We are able to achieve these results because we employ a highly-tailored, high-touch model in which our counselors work in collaboration with students and their families to develop the most successful course of action. Our decades of combined experience working in the college admissions field allows us to help our students avoid the conventional wisdom traps that, if followed, would dramatically reduce their chances of earning a degree.

CDI’s ability to help Scholars and families find affordable four-year college options minimizes the reliance on the cost-saving tactics of attending community college, commuting to school, and working to pay tuition. In fact, CDI Scholars graduate from more selective colleges at higher rates and with less debt than their peers.

On average, the 2017 CDI graduating high school class paid $1,856 out of pocket to attend the four-year residential college to which they matriculated. Remarkably, more than 93-percent of CDI Scholars in the class of 2017 had a four-year residential college option available to them in which they could have paid less than $3,000 out of pocket to attend and live on campus. 84-percent of the class chose to attend their cheapest option. These results are due in large part to the fact that CDI Scholars receive an average of $32,000 in college grants and scholarships versus the national average of $14,000.

With the help of donations, sponsorships, and underwriting, CDI can expand the reach of our successful, proven program and help even more low-income, first-generation-to-college students reach their educational aspirations and achieve what’s possible!

Collegiate Directions, Inc. is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization committed to closing the education, achievement, and opportunity gap for low-income, primarily first-generation-to-college students. CDI provides comprehensive college counseling, targeted tutoring, test preparation, study skills training, leadership training, and ongoing support, starting in 10th grade and continuing through successful college graduation — leading to a 97% college graduation rate for participating students. CDI extends its work to high school college advising offices through tailored consulting focused on helping school counselors and staff improve college advising and supporting students to find their best-fit college.

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