‘A Whole New Animal’: College applicants wrestle with soaring tuition, unclear admissions

by Craig Manning

Is higher education nearing a reckoning? In the wake of COVID-19, with tuition costs constantly breaking records and more students and families wondering about the value of a four-year degree, local college planning professionals think the answer might just be yes.

“Last year was a whole new animal,” said Matt Breimayer, of the 2020-21 college planning cycle.

Breimayer, as the owner and founder of Traverse City’s Right Path College and Career Planning, has been consulting with families on college planning and admissions strategy for more than a decade. He’s never seen as much doubt in the conventional four-year college pathway as he saw clients bringing to the table during the pandemic.

“People were saying, ‘Maybe we should just do a gap year,’ or ‘Maybe we should look at community college.’ Or it was, ‘Maybe we should reevaluate college altogether,’” he said.

Some of that doubt, Breimayer says, has been festering for years. The big driver is cost. In 2018-19, the average annual cost for tuition and fees at a four-year public university was $20,598 per the National Center for Education Statistics – up from $16,768 a decade earlier. The annual cost at private institutions for the same year was $44,662.

For the most part, those costs continue to rise. At Michigan State University, the board of trustees in June voted to approve a 2% hike that will bump annual in-state tuition to $14,750 and out-of-state to $40,562.

“We might be nearing the point where people will say, ‘We’re not going to pay for it anymore,’” Breimeyer said. “I think we’re seeing that people really are questioning the cost. A number of years ago, when you could go to college and come out with under $50,000 for a four-year degree, people were more likely to say, ‘Okay, well, I can justify that and becoming a teacher and making $30,000 a year.’ But now, students are really looking at it and asking, ‘Is it really worth it to spend $120,000 to get a certain type of degree?’”

Gretchen Uhlinger, president and college planning specialist at Traverse City’s Pinpoint Personal Academic Advising, concurs with Breimayer. She says that one of her key services – preparing a “best match list” that pairs each student with college options based on skills, aspirations, and other criteria – now incorporates cost as a top factor.

“If you’re not on a college path that’s going to lead to a pretty clear career, then you really have to wonder how much money you’re going to spend,” she said. “And that’s tricky.”

But cost also isn’t the only thing upending the world of higher education these days.

COVID-19 sent many schools virtual, an element that Breimayer thinks caused many students to opt for gap years or community college credits rather than pay a premium for online classes. Without the promise of a traditional on-campus “college experience,” he says, students and families were suddenly a lot less willing to take the gamble on a high tuition price tag.

The pandemic also knocked the admissions cycle out of whack, by posing challenges for everything from college testing to campus visits. With COVID making it so many students were unable to take or retake admissions tests like the SAT and the ACT, many colleges across the country have actually opted to offer test-optional admissions this year – and even beyond.

Illinois and Colorado have both passed legislation that requires all public universities to make standardized test scores an optional component of the admissions process. Many experts think these laws could spell a permanent move away from standardized testing.

According to FairTest, an organization pushing for test-optional college admissions nationwide, more than 1,500 accredited four-year institutions are officially test-optional for the fall 2022 application cycle – approximately 65% of all bachelor degree-granting institutions in the country.

While proponents of test-optional policies say that they can help level the playing field for low-income, female and minority applicants (early studies have offered compelling evidence to support this claim) both Uhlinger and Breimayer think the approach needs more thought.

“The movement was growing (before COVID),” Uhlinger noted of the test-optional trend. “But the schools doing it were often the ones that had a more holistic mission. They were looking at kids from a 360-degree perspective anyway. And they were using, as their sounding call, data that indicated that a test score is only indicative of success at the college level for about the first semester. And then after that, it isn’t an indicator at all.”

Underscoring this point, Uhlinger referenced a published Kalamazoo College study on the topic.

“A group of schools grabbed on to (the study) and went with it. So the number was growing, but it wasn’t the big schools,” she said. “Because, honestly, without a test score to use as one benchmark in the entry system, schools that are getting 10,000 applicants don’t even know where to begin to sift.”

Uhlinger adds that it’s often “terribly unclear” how schools assess students and start whittling down applicants if they aren’t using test scores – let alone how much a test score can help or hurt a student if they do choose to submit one. She also notes that most of the schools that have been transparent about the process say they are using the high school transcript as the “first gate” of college admissions now – an approach that has its own shortcomings.

“Kids who come into high school already aspiring to go to college will put together a transcript that looks like a college prep transcript,” Uhlinger explained. “But kids who are unclear about that path sometimes wind up with a transcript that isn’t very rigorous. And then that’s where they might miss that first gate, if colleges are looking at rigor of transcript and grades earned. And then, on top of that, if kids are submitting test scores, schools are looking at them. There’s all this stuff about, ‘Scores are truly optional, and we’re not going to make decisions based on them.’ But they’re still looking at them.”

The result, Uhlinger and Breimayer agree, has the potential to be an even more confusing and fraught college admissions process than what existed before. Students from low-income households who aren’t getting the same push from their parents to take challenging classes, for instance, might not put together a transcript that is going to catch a college admissions officer’s eye; it’s a barrier potentially just as notable – and with just as much disparate impact – as standardized testing.

The test-optional concept, meanwhile, may lull students and families into believing SAT and ACT scores are obsolete, even though there’s no saying how much weight those tests carry unless they are retired altogether.

“Everyone right now is talking about the SAT and ACT, and whether they are optional,” Breimayer said. “But our take is, why not take them and put yourself in the best possible position? If you’re taking the test, and 10 people don’t take it, maybe you rise to the top because you took that initiative. And that’s also how they determine scholarships at certain levels. Have universities revised that? I don’t know.”

All these factors – the cost of college, the debate over admissions testing, the COVID disruption – have changed the game for the people working in the college planning industry. These days, both Breimayer and Uhlinger have strong opinions about the expense of college. Neither is quick to recommend that any students take on college debt, for instance, and Breimayer even admits that the college loan system as it exists today is predatory.

“It’s a huge money game, in my opinion, for the government,” Breimayer said. “Because most people that we work with have to take out student loans and Parent PLUS loans. Those Parent PLUS loans range anywhere from 6-9% interest. So why would they not keep raising the cost of college, so more and more of us gather these loans? It’s a cash cow. There are trillions of dollars in student loans that are out there, and they’re not bankruptible so you can’t get rid of them. So it’s a payment just coming into the government on a regular basis.”

Still, when asked whether mounting college debt and growing questions about the value of college education are forcing existential crises about the work they do and why they do it, both Breimayer and Uhlinger make an identical claim: That smart, strategic college planning matters more in 2021 than ever before.

“The number of kids I see hasn’t changed in 15 years,” Uhlinger said. “But the demand for my services went way up last year, and I worked harder last year than I’ve ever worked because the work is harder now. It’s harder to help the kids, just because of the complexity of the situation. And my approach to the kids is far more pragmatic than it used to be, because it has to be if I’m going to be a value to the family.”

That pragmatism goes beyond just looking at college cost. It also goes toward thinking about career paths that might offer the strongest job prospects, targeting any and all available scholarship opportunities, and eyeing alternatives to four-year universities.

The most readily available of those alternatives, to Traverse City students? Northwestern Michigan College. Not only is NMC significantly less expensive than a four-year university – $112 per credit hour for local in-district students, versus $491.75 per credit hour for in-state students – but NMC also recently discontinued a flexible learning online fee that will, the college claims, “result in most students paying less for an average semester” in 2021-22 than they did last school year.

Despite the affordability, both Uhlinger and Breimayer say many students right now aren’t ready to consider the NMC option.

“They say, ‘No, that doesn’t sound fun. I want to get out of here. I want to have the college experience,’” Breimayer said of the students he works with.

“So how do you change that narrative? Back when I was in school, I think there was a stigma of, ‘Oh, you’re going to NMC? You’re not smart enough to get into MSU?’ It’s maybe viewed as an embarrassment. And I think we need to look past that, so that kids can say, ‘Well, maybe I’m the smarter one.’ Because if you can live at home, and take some classes, and get a job, then maybe you can graduate debt-free.”