Apr 6, 2022

Book Review: The Price You Pay for College by Ron Lieber

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I just listened to Ron Lieber's book, The Price You Pay for College: An Entirely New Road Map for the Biggest Financial Decision Your Family Will Ever Make. It's a great book, and one that every parent who wants their kid to go to college should read. I wish it had been around when my kids were little, or at least when they were in middle school. But even now, with as much as I've learned over the last five or so years, I picked up useful information that I'll be implementing immediately.

The book covers a lot of ground in five sections:

  • Part I: The Price and Cost of College and the Systems Behind It - This includes discussion about why college costs so much, an explanation about the FAFSA and EFC, and different kinds of financial aid.
  • Part II: The Unhelpful Feelings You May Feel - The feelings are fear, guilt, and "the pull of snobbery and elitism." 
  • Part III: Value - I loved this section, because it asks what is worth paying for, which will differ by family and student. Some families might find it worth paying for a women's college. Others might want to pay for small class sizes at liberal arts colleges. Still others might shell out for robust mental health programs, and so on. The chapters on different considerations contain questions to ask so you can get deeper than the college's public relations message.
  • Part IV: Money-Saving Hacks That Will Tempt You - The "hacks" include community college, honors colleges, college abroad, gap years, and athletic scholarships. I appreciated the hard truths in this section, such as the rarity of getting an athletic scholarship (particularly at one's first choice school), and the importance of immediately identifying one's desired four-year institution upon starting community college in order to be able to transfer in two years (you have to jump through the right hoops). I was pleasantly surprised by the data about gap years. The information in this section is all couched in terms of financial value, which is a different perspective than you'll find elsewhere.
  • Part V: The Plans - The plans include a "big financial plan," talking with your child about money for college, and "shopping" for college. There is also information on college savings plans, when and how to find professional help, appealing financial aid awards, and the basics of student loans. The chapter on "shopping" for college has some very practical tips that I hadn't come across anywhere else, which is saying something.
There is so much information in this book that after listening to it, I got the written version so I could easily make notes on the ideas I wanted to make sure I keep in mind. I especially wanted to get down the questions to ask of colleges to find out where they stand on the considerations that are important to my children and our family, and of course, the "shopping tips," including how to find merit aid data.

Because the focus is on paying for, rather than getting into, college, the book doesn't get into the nitty gritty of the application process. But it does cover a lot of the initial phases of the process, particularly list-building. (In college application parlance, "the list" is the list of colleges a student will be applying to.) For most families, I think this is one of, if not the most, difficult parts of the process because it's just hard to know where to start.

I had listened to a podcast about this book before I listened to the book itself, and there had been a mention that the book includes tips for talking with grandparents about whether they plan to help pay for college. I couldn't help but start at that chapter (Chapter 28, in case you're like me), but it turned out that the conversation was aimed primarily at parents of young children who were just starting out the college savings process. Which made me think at first that the book is aimed at new parents, but it's really not. 

Chapter 28 and Chapter 30 (which is all about 529 plans) are definitely relevant to parents with very young children. But the rest of the book is more useful to parents of middle schoolers and up, especially if money is an issue. Even if money isn't a factor, however, the book would be helpful in identifying schools that are a good fit for a student.

Verdict: I am adding this book to my list of must-reads for parents planning to send their children to college.

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