My Favorite Lesson

Jul 08, 2014

Monday, I had the opportunity to teach my favorite lesson for high school freshmen (spoiler alert:  I have a lot of favorite lessons so you may read this again in future posts).  The class starts with a simple question:

The total cost to go to Stanford University for 2012-13 was around $60,000.  If my family’s annual income was between $30,000-$48,000, my net price to attend Stanford would be about:

a)  $5,000 per year

b)  $10,000 per year

c)  $20,000 per year

d)  $40,000 per year

I give the students a moment to mull this over before writing down their response (might use clickers in future years so I can get a quick tabulation).  I then start with answer d) and have students raise hands if they selected that answer.  A few hands go up for d), a lot more for c), a few more for b) and none for a).  When I tell them the answer is in fact a), an audible gasp is heard from students.  Responses range from:  “How can that be?”  to “Wow!” to “Is that really true?”

If you want to see for yourself, check out Net Price on College Navigator:

Next come the caveats:  Stanford is a difficult school to get into (acceptance rate of 6%), this is the average net price so some families will pay more and some will pay less.  

So, what do I hope to achieve with a question like this?

  • Teach the students the difference between college’s sticker price and net price.  Many students and their families, particularly low-income,  see the headlines bemoaning the all to common $60,000 sticker price and wonder how they can ever possibly afford such an expenditure.  Given the ambitions of these students, the last thought I want in their mind is that they can’t shoot high because costs are prohibitive.  
  • As the net price chart so clearly demonstrates, colleges adjust aid based on a family’s income level or as one student so eloquently put it, “So let me get this right, the poorer my family the more aid I will get from colleges.”
  • As we compare Stanford to other state colleges later in the lesson, they discover that private universities often have LOWER net costs than public institutions.  

Of course, money is only one hurdle to college attainment.  I also believe students need to understand the process of how colleges decide on who to admit to their college as this can be quite a mystery to firstgen students.  Better to know this information when you are a freshman than when you are a junior or senior.  To make this real to the students, I show a five minute clip of an admissions video developed by a local state university. You want to see an engaged each of my three sections, all students were laser-focused on this video.  They learned that grades and test scores are important (and yes, your transcript for high school starts with freshman year) but so are the rigor of your classes, your activities, community service, jobs, leadership roles, etc.  I then asked the students to reflect on what they took away from this video and how it will impact what they hope to accomplish over their high school career.  Getting those goals established early are so critical.  

So, after discussing how to pay for college as well as what colleges look for in candidates, I wanted to explore what students felt would be important in selecting a college.  What was top of mind for these students included:

  • Proximity to home (these are freshmen after all)
  • Cost:  Net price vs. sticker price conversation again
  • Academics
  • Sports teams (hmmm, led to another tangent regarding athletic scholarships which was valuable for the budding athletes in the room)
  • Physical security
  • Do they feel welcomed on campus

This is a great opportunity to dispel myths they might have and also to discuss items they may have left off including things like graduation rates, majors, reputation.  They seemed excited as they filed out of the classroom knowing that on Wednesday, they would be researching two colleges that they are interested in learning more about. 


About the Author

Tim Ranzetta

Tim's saving habits started at seven when a neighbor with a broken hip gave him a dog walking job. Her recovery, which took almost a year, resulted in Tim getting to know the bank tellers quite well (and accumulating a savings account balance of over $300!). His recent entrepreneurial adventures have included driving a shredding truck, analyzing executive compensation packages for Fortune 500 companies and helping families make better college financing decisions. After volunteering in 2010 to create and teach a personal finance program at Eastside College Prep in East Palo Alto, Tim saw firsthand the impact of an engaging and activity-based curriculum, which inspired him to start a new non-profit, Next Gen Personal Finance.

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