As a high school senior, Mallory Rusoff visited 10 schools she was considering for college, mainly in the Pacific Northwest, with a few in California and Idaho. But the high cost of schooling concerned Mallory and her mother, Deidra Krys-Rusoff.
“I didn’t want to come out of undergrad with a lot of debt, burden my parents or put them through the unnecessary stress of how much tuition could be at some schools,” Rusoff says.
Her parents also expected her to pay for part of schooling, such as books or some tuition. “I think students value education more if they’re contributing to it,” says her mother, Krys-Rusoff, from their home in Portland, Oregon.
Graduating without debt and contributing to school has become far more challenging in the past 10 years. According to the most recent government data, undergraduate tuition, fees and room and board prices at public institutions rose 28%. Prices for these same items rose 19% at private nonprofit institutions.
“Yes, costs are higher in the three years since our oldest daughter, Aubrey started at College of Idaho,” Krys-Rusoff says. “Tuition, lodging and meal plans are all up appreciably.”
Expanding the search
Some of those on-campus visits included private schools, which may surprise some, considering the Rusoffs’ concern about tuition increases and keeping costs low. “People think they can’t afford private school because the initial price tag seems overwhelming,” Krys-Rusoff says. Yet private institutions often have good aid packages that can knock down tuition rates, she’d heard from friends with older college students.
As a portfolio manager and parent, she’s seen some individuals fixate on getting into one prestigious school but wind up surprised by a high cost and low aid package. These college packages may include any combination of grants and scholarships, student loans and work-study. Experts have noted that applying to fewer than three schools can limit students’ financial aid and acceptance options.
“Parents can work with a student to be realistic,” Krys-Rusoff says. “Most kids can be successful in any setting, and although this may be your dream school, you may not be their dream student. Schools tend to give you more funding if they want you to attend.”
After filling out the FAFSA and applying, accepting schools sent the Rusoffs a proposed financial aid package. Now it was time for a challenging decision.
School cost comparisons
Comparing school financial costs on an apples-to-apples basis can be challenging. For example, quoted housing and food costs may be unrealistically low if the institution suggests the smallest meal plan or dorm type.
Tuition can always rise as well, particularly in an inflationary environment. But aid might stay the same, Krys-Rusoff says, and as a parent, you should calculate that in. However, some schools, like Pacific Lutheran University, may offer a fixed tuition guarantee to incoming classes that remains the same throughout the four-year stay — which can help parents plan.
So the Rusoffs created an Excel spreadsheet. Each school received a tab. The Rusoffs entered information for tuition, lodging and food, scholarships, loans and any additional fees or costs, such as airfare to and from farther-flung states such as California.
By looking at the hard numbers, they could tell that some of the nine schools were no-gos due to cost. In theory, some in-state schools cost less but provide much lower aid packages, making the institutions more expensive.
Indeed, 83% of first-time, full-time undergraduate students were offered grants at private, four-year nonprofit institutions compared to 51% of students at public universities.
Another way to compare various schools is through using the U.S. Department of Education Scorecard, which allows you to review a school’s average annual cost and salary after completing school.
“We realized that Pacific Lutheran University was very generous while also providing small class sizes and personal attention,” Krys-Rusoff says, thanks to the aid package. Rusoff started her freshman year in Fall 2020 at PLU.
Scholarships, grants and work-study
Financial aid that doesn’t need to be repaid can include scholarships, waivers and grants. This aid may come from federal, state or school sources and is particularly helpful as college costs increase. Scholarships can be based on merit, need or match.
Scholarships can also provide aid for fields of interest such as art or teaching, or even on whether a student’s parent is a nurse, veteran, clergy or K-12 educator.
PLU offers $61 million in PLU-funded scholarships and grants annually, and several combined scholarships cover about half of Rusoff’s tuition. She was awarded a four-year scholarship based on her grades, test scores and application essay, as long as she maintains a 2.5 GPA average or above.
Because she visited the school, Rusoff received a $1000/year scholarship for her entire educational span. She’s also receiving a housing scholarship for all four years, which helps her mom sleep a little easier at night.
While Rusoff didn’t need to do anything extra to apply for her scholarships, it’s wise to ask admission counselors about possible grants or waivers or research online any scholarships handed out by individuals or organizations.
Rusoff has access to federal student loans but only uses a portion of the loan amount and instead contributes to her schooling with summer work at a uniform shop. However, many families turn to low-interest federal student or parent loans to fund a college education, offered based on need after all grants and scholarships are included.
Some students also use their financial aid package’s work-study job to defray rising college costs. Other students, like Rusoff, work part time. For necessities (like tissues or a movie), Rusoff puts in 3 to 12 hours per week on the PLU campus as a sports information assistant, running clocks, scoreboards and cameras.
The family also had contributed to a tax-advantaged 529 college savings plan since Rusoff was young, which is now being used for tuition bills.
Value is essential to consider, too. Majoring in sociology with minors in biology and English, Rusoff hasn’t decided on a career. “It’s another bonus of a liberal arts school,” she says.
Rusoff appreciates the overall value she receives, including various sports to participate in, such as badminton and Ultimate Frisbee, good cafeteria food, such as a chicken katsu bowl, mental health services and visiting therapy dogs on campus during finals week.
“I like PLU and they give good financial aid,” she says. “It’s perfect.”
Pacific Lutheran University is a small private university where you will find a community of doers, seekers, trailblazers, creators and reformers who are unafraid to do things differently to leave the world better than we found it.