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Without photoshopping his face onto the body of a water polo athlete, like some of the parents caught up in the recent U.S. college cheating scandal, I could have prepped my older son, Jonah, for college like a prize pumpkin at the county fair.

Starting when he was in middle school, I could have taken a stronger role in overseeing his schoolwork by editing his papers, re-teaching certain subjects and hiring tutors in others. I could have checked his online gradebooks daily. I could have supervised homework and nudged him to schmooze with teachers. In high school, we could have hired one-on-one tutors to prepare him for standardized tests. I could have pushed him to take on leadership positions in clubs he didn’t care about. I could have written his essay and filled out the Common Application for him.

Lots of parents do these tasks; most aren’t even considered cheating. It’s just how things are done these days among many upper- and middle-class families.

With our backgrounds in higher education, my husband and I have more relevant skills than many other families in our community. We likely could have micromanaged our kid into Harvard. But we didn’t. Between our son’s stubborn resistance to our help, and our own ethics and laziness, we did very little to turn our kid into a tidy package for colleges. Instead, I taught my son how to be a good education consumer.

While largely devoid of most natural talents, I do possess two skills. First, I know a lot about schools. By my mid-40s, I had been a grad student, an education policy researcher and a professor. After that, I made a career writing about education. My other major skill was cultivated by my Italian immigrant relatives from the Bronx: I’m a really good shopper.

Our first step was to create a list of colleges based on our best guesses about where Jonah was likely to be admitted. We ruled out very expensive, selective private colleges because he was unlikely to get merit aid at those schools. Any college that involved a plane trip was out. We came up with 11 flagship public colleges in adjacent states, including Miami University (in Ohio), the University of Maine, Rutgers University, the University of Connecticut and SUNY Binghamton.

Related: Colleges provide misleading information about their costs

We assembled a lengthy list of colleges because we weren’t sure whether he’d get any financial help from the colleges. Our family income is healthy on paper, but I wasn’t sure if factors like the high cost of living in our state, the sizable educational and therapeutic expenses for our younger son with autism, late starts on careers, and Jonah’s great SAT score would figure into the calculus of college financial-aid offices.

We weren’t alone in our confusion about costs; college costs are mysterious to many families. Because colleges offer discounts to students based on their academic records as well as family financial situation, the advertised “sticker price” of a college is often not the net price. Most schools don’t divulge the actual price until (or even after) the acceptance letter arrives.

Over the summer before Jonah’s senior year, we used our vacation time to visit many schools. On the tours, I urged my son to look past the cute tour guide’s banter and her ability to talk while walking backward. Instead, I made him ask questions that were aimed at determining the quality of the school and its academic offerings. On every tour, he asked the guide, “What percentage of your teachers are adjunct professors?” (They never knew the answer to that question.)

Adjunct professors are temporary faculty who are often hired on a semester basis to teach a class or two. About three-quarters of all college professors in the United States are adjunct professors, although some colleges rely on them more than others do. Because adjuncts tend to earn little money, have no job security and often teach heavy courseloads on multiple campuses, it is difficult for them to be effective educators. My May 2015 article for The Atlantic discussed the impacts of adjunct instruction on student learning.

One tour guide told me that parents never ask her about instructors or classes. Rather, the most popular parental questions, she said, were about dining hall offerings and parking spots.

When summer was over, I posted a “To Do” chart on the refrigerator with application, recommendation, essay and transcript deadlines. And that was pretty much the extent of my help with the boring “chore” list of applying to colleges. Jonah came up with his own topic for the essay and then wrote it himself. I checked for typos. Everything else was his job.

Throughout the fall, we had long talks about the fact that we didn’t have a great deal of savings for college. Jonah wasn’t going to be able to make the same choices as some of his friends, but that was okay. I even pointed to studies that show little difference in earnings between students who attend expensive private universities like Harvard and those who attend slightly less elite schools. I wanted my son to understand the financial realities of college long before any acceptance letters arrived. I “managed expectations,” as business folks say.

After the “To Do” list was completed, I posted a second chart with columns for school name, admission status (“in,” “rejected,” “waitlisted”), rank, full price of admission, aid or fellowship, and final cost. Then we waited for fat envelopes.

Admittedly, using magazine rankings to measure the quality of a school is clumsy at best. Most rankings, for example, don’t include information about the percentage of adjunct faculty. Many have pointed out that ranking systems put too much weight on the reputations of schools among higher-education professionals, and that colleges game the system. Those rankings, however, are the only easy way for parents without access to more sophisticated data to measure quality. In the absence of a better system, we relied on magazine rankings to compare schools.

The first envelope to arrive was from the University of Tennessee at Knoxville. When Jonah opened the musical card with a shower of confetti, he wrote “in” on the chart, with a rank of 103, $47,000, no aid and $47,000. Over the next few months, we filled in the entire chart.

Related:  Students need a boost in wealth more than a boost in SAT scores

Jonah’s first choice was the University of Vermont because the campus was drop-dead gorgeous and because the tour guide showed them a facility for using plants to purify water. He saw a kid skateboarding through the campus and could imagine himself doing that. Despite our efforts to educate him about the fact that college wasn’t all about green fields and nice buildings, in the end he was still a kid, not ready to make tough decisions on his own.

Thanks to our handy chart, I could show him that the full price of attendance for out-of-state students at the University of Vermont was $55,000 and the school was ranked 96th nationally. (Prices and rankings have changed a bit since 2017, when we made our decisions.) I called UVM’s admissions office to see if they would recalculate Jonah’s aid package based on our unique circumstances, and they said no.

My son was also admitted to Rutgers University, where the full cost of attendance for one year was around $30,000 for in-state students. It was ranked 70th nationally. I explained to Jonah that we’d have to pay $100,000 more over four years for a less prestigious education at the University of Vermont. Were nice views and a cool vibe worth $100,000? That didn’t sound like a good deal to me.

Some families feel guilty when they have to tell their kids “no,” especially in communities where classmates may come from families with seemingly unlimited bank accounts. The whole culture of the college admissions process puts the cost of an education on the backburner. It is more about “fit,” but not enough about reality. Some parents put themselves into a great deal of debt to avoid that “no.”

Thanks to my refrigerator chart, we prepared our son and ourselves for making a decision where cost was a key variable. And after getting Ph.D.s in a terrible job market, we know from personal experience that getting an education is costly (together we owed $75,000 in student loans when we got married), and it doesn’t always pay off.

Attending a massive state university with an impersonal bureaucracy and a large percentage of adjunct faculty hasn’t always been easy for Jonah. As every bargain hunter knows, there are trade-offs in any purchase. Different families will and should make decisions based on their own resources and children’s needs, but all families should approach the process with a clear-headed, informed look at the pros and cons, which includes scrutinizing both cost and quality.

This story about college value was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up here for our newsletter.

A former teacher, academic and policy analyst, Laura McKenna is a freelance writer specializing in education, parenting and politics.

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