Contentious debates about rising college costs during the academic year make summer a welcome break from bad news. One recent headline was “Political Storm Stirring over Student Loans.” The next day a New York Times editorial urged, “Subsidize Students, Not Tax Cuts!” These articles, unfortunately, forecast that summer is going to provide no vacation from higher education’s political heat wave. It merely shifts the focus from the campus to camp.
That’s because the spending and choices associated with the American ritual of sending a child to summer camp today is a rehearsal for the kinds of decisions that will face a family about five years later when they consider sending the same child to college. It also reinforces how advantages and inequities are acquired early in the American college sweepstakes.
For a relatively small portion of prospective college students and their parents who are serious about selective college admissions, here is how choices and opportunity costs have brought camp and campus into a seamless web of deliberations far beyond the planning and pocketbooks of most American families.
How Much Does It Cost?
The answer is that it all depends -- camps are comparable to colleges in their range of prices and services. Among the numerous possibilities is “Pine Forest Camp,” located in the Pocono Mountains of Pennsylvania, conspicuous because it was selected by The New York Times as the subject for a front-page feature story on the changing economics of camp. A glance at the Pine Forest website indicates that in 2011 the charge for seven weeks of a full summer for a stayover camper was $9,700.
Official camp charges do not include such incidentals as travel and supplies. There is considerable discretion on how much parents must pay versus how much they choose to pay. And, for families who are newcomers to deciding about camp for their children, there is new information to absorb about camp expenses. The camp’s website provides a camp packing list. Some clothing items “are only available through Bunkline" -- an internet site for purchase of camper gear. In addition to clothing and accessories, parents can pay for special optional programs: superstar tennis, superstar golf, horseback riding, top cooks, and one-on-one fitness.
Camp as College Prep
Pertinent for connecting camp to college, an upscale camp such as Pine Forest showcases on its website that it offers as a supplement a Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) prep course. The catalog elaborates that, “In SAT Prep, campers will spend 4 hours a week preparing for the SAT by learning test-taking techniques and taking 3 practice tests during the summer. Campers have a competitive edge when they return to school in the fall. This extra course is taught by a certified teacher and SAT tutor. Most participants improve their scores by over 100 points."
An option in the leadership track for campers is the “College Bound” program. It is not completely clear whether this entails added charges. Or, if it does, how much? This detail is crucial because it can drive up expenses. Its availability suggests that the clients of the camp are highly concerned about college admissions. The “College-Bound program combines the best parts of being a camper with additional responsibilities and challenges. 11th graders live together with counselors and enjoy the full range of Hi-Seniors activities. CAs participate in leagues, inter-camp games, socials, Color Days, Banquet, Cabaret…the best parts of camp! Plus CAs have unique ‘college-bound’ opportunities.”
The CAs have a trip to Washington, D.C., with visits to American University, George Washington University, Georgetown University, the Holocaust Museum, the Kennedy Center, and on the way back to camp, a visit to Pennsylvania State University. The Boston trip introduces camper-students to Boston University, Harvard University, and Boston College, along with walking tours of Cambridge and historic Boston. Finally, the trip to New York City provided visits to New York University, Greenwich Village, and Broadway.
How Far and How Fast Are Costs Rising?
Both colleges and camps are scrutinized for their rising costs and prices over the long haul. In 1931, when Pine Forest Camp first opened, a seven-week stay cost $85. The summer camp in 1931 costs about 114 times as much today, 80 years later.
Did summer camp really cost 114 times more than now? This may be technically accurate – but it is a calculation so misleading as to be incorrect because it is incomplete. When one accounts for inflation, that $85 in 1931 translates to $1,263.68 in 2011 dollars. Summer camp has increased by 767 percent -- or, stated another way, it is about eight times more expensive than it was in 1931. As for comparing costs of college and camp, college presidents may find some relief from critics in now being able to document that colleges are not alone in escalating prices.
Extra Expenses and the Real Cost of Attendance
As preview for the peculiar consumerism of rising college costs, consider a recent development about summer camp expenses that made front page headlines in The New York Times article, “To Reach Simple Life of Summer Camp, Lining Up for Private Jets.” A number of families were chartering private jets from New York and Philadelphia to take their children to rustic summer camps in rural Maine. What started as an infrequent act spread in popularity, so much so that the small airports in Bangor and Augusta had to increase services to accommodate this expensive practice. Why would parents pay huge amounts for air service instead of the traditional drive in the family station wagon or SUV? The explanations provided a look at family discretionary choices about their children’s education and related support services.
Some parents explained that chartering a private jet was useful because it compressed round-trip travel time from several days to six hours. This could be justified as effective and, perhaps, efficient. There was a secondary, social effect: bragging rights and prestige among parents and children in which chartering the private jet conferred some reflected prestige of “conspicuous consumption.” All constituents henceforth had to be at least aware of this level, whether they mimicked it or not.
All this took place outside the purview of camp officials. To the contrary, for some camp staff, it was a disconcerting clash with the values and experiences of camp life they wished to transmit to adolescents. Regardless of the camp administrators’ views, there was little they could do to encourage or discourage the practice. Parents, meanwhile, had to take these factors into consideration about camp expenses and lifestyle. The summer camp economy had become financially stratified by official price plus added discretionary expenses subject to expensive status pressures. This was a forewarning of decisions about college prices and choices that a family would make in the future. Most important, it shows how numerous variables need to be considered when one calculates the genuine cost of attendance.
Cost of Attendance (COA). Connections to College Costs: From Camp Back to the Campus
Camps and colleges use similar language such as “tuition and fees” charges. Second, a camp and a campus have comparable investments in residential physical plant with recreational and instructional facilities. A residential camp enrolling 450 children has an annual budget of more than $2 million, including $1 million for salaries for a staff of 500. Annual maintenance is about $700,000. The residential dining hall at Pine Forest serves 4,200 meals per day for a summer total expense of $500,000. Third, the proliferation of expensive accessories illustrates how expenses can snowball. The connection between camp and campus becomes more evident when one recalls that a camp offered two optional programs for which families would have to pay extra: the SAT prep program and the Leadership program dealing with college campus visits.
Escalation of supplements was the focus of another New York Times article last summer on the quest for admissions advantage that high school seniors gain by enrolling in (and paying for) programs that provide unusual summer experiences geared to writing an impressive college application essay. This new, expensive option in the summer experience was called “priceless fodder for the cutthroat college application process. Suddenly the idea of working as a waitress or a lifeguard seems like a quaint relic of an idyllic, pre-Tiger Mom past."
If one knows that such pre-college socialization and programs make a difference in who goes where to college and how well they are prepared, does one then include the camp and other activities in plan for compensatory programs that increase promote genuine equity and access? The sociologists Christopher Jencks and David Riesman observed in their 1968 classic work, The Academic Revolution, that for the children of education-minded American families, going to college is not a sprint, but a marathon. Some competitive families start the preliminary heats of this race early, with summer camp as the racer’s edge.
Forty years ago John Gardner, in his 1961 book, Excellence -- asked, “Can we be equal -- and excellent, too?” High prices at camp and campus signal that the answer for today is, “Fat chance!”
John Thelin is professor of higher education & public policy at the University of Kentucky and author of A History of American Higher Education (Johns Hopkins Press, 2011).
In the federally mandated regulation that all distance education programs must obtain authorization from every state in which they enroll students, a much-touted solution has been a reciprocity agreement, under which states would agree to accept each other's authorization and spare large distance education programs from making up to 50 different applications. The Presidents' Forum and the Council of State Governments released a draft of such an agreement this week. The details of the authorization requirements are still scant, and will depend in part on the states who decide to join the effort, but the agreement would require minimum standards, including accreditation and legally mandated disclosures.
A later draft should be complete by this fall, and states are expected to begin joining the reciprocity agreement some time next year. The federal state authorization requirement has been challenged in court, but even if it is struck down, many believe that states will continue to enforce their own authorization rules.
State grant programs for college students should move beyond their traditional dichotomy between “need based” and “merit based” aid and instead target students with financial need but set expectations and support for college success, says a report published Tuesday by a Brookings Institution panel. The report, which was discussed at an event at Brookings Tuesday and outlined in an essay on Inside Higher Ed, argues that the grants must be made more effective given their increasing performance as tuition costs rise and other state support for higher education erodes.
A bill to keep the interest rate on subsidized student loans at 3.4 percent for another year failed to pass a key procedural hurdle in the Senate on Tuesday, setting up more conflict over how to stop the interest rate from doubling July 1. Democrats and Republicans have agreed on the need to keep the interest rate at its current, historic low for at least another year, but can't find common ground on how to pay for the extension. House Republicans passed a bill last week to take the needed $6 billion from a preventive care fund in the health care reform law, while Senate Democrats support changing tax laws to require high-earning stockholders in certain types of corporations to contribute to payroll taxes.
The Senate voted 52-45 in favor of allowing debate on the bill, but failed to reach the 60 votes needed to defeat a filibuster.
The Education Department is increasingly relying on collection agencies to obtain funds from those who have defaulted on student loans, but the department is failing to monitor complaints about these agencies, says a new report from the National Consumer Law Center. The center "found that contractors do not maintain accessible complaint systems and some agencies ignore the department’s minimum requirements for handling borrower grievances," the report says. "Overall, the complaint systems used by some collectors display a haphazard approach to resolving borrower disputes. The department also has failed to inform borrowers of the resources available through the agency to address complaints."
Federal financial aid for college students is frequently in the headlines, but the student grants provided by state governments receive less attention. In recent years, the grants have grown in importance as tuitions have increased and state appropriations for public colleges and universities, which allow these institutions to subsidize the tuition of all in-state students, have declined. Policies vary widely across states, but state grant aid – which provides subsidies to selected students -- has increased to about $9.2 billion in 2010-11.
In our new report, “Beyond Need and Merit: Strengthening State Grant Programs” (co-authored with the other members of a Brookings Institution study group), we urge states to re-examine their state grant programs to more effectively support the goal of increasing educational attainment.
We propose moving away from the dichotomy between “need-based” and “merit-based” aid and instead designing programs that direct aid to students with financial need with appropriate expectations and support for college success. Too many existing grant programs exclude the students who need them most by rewarding past academic accomplishments. Our goal is to improve the performance of students facing financial and academic challenges.
Some states ignore financial circumstances in allocating all or most of their grant funds, providing expensive subsidies to many students who would enroll and succeed in college without this assistance.
Other states do target low-income students, but frequently have complex allocation formulas that increase administrative costs and reduce student understanding of the system. The incentives embodied in aid programs for low- and moderate-income students are rarely carefully designed to support academic progress. Too many state grant programs exclude students without stellar high school records. Not enough provide simple, attainable guidelines for accumulating the credits necessary to graduate.
The recommendations in our report, which was funded by the Lumina Foundation, fall into three categories: targeting, simplification, and incentivizing success.
First, states should do a better job of targeting aid dollars at students whose potential to succeed is most constrained by limited resources. These students are most likely to be affected by state grant awards -- in terms of both their ability to attend college and the likelihood that they will graduate.
Second, states should consolidate programs to make the system simpler and easier for prospective students and their families to understand and navigate. Programs can be better targeted but still relatively simple. Look-up tables like those that would base grant eligibility only on income and family size might serve as a model. In the same spirit, net price calculators that students can use to estimate the cost of attendance at every public institution in the state would be a valuable supplement to the calculators each individual institution is now required by federal law to post on its website. There is strong evidence that complexity reduces the effectiveness of grant programs. The federal government has begun to simplify the financial aid application process and efforts are under way to move further in that direction, possibly reducing the amount of information collected to determine student and family ability to pay. States should welcome federal simplification efforts and should resist any temptation to ask for additional data -- restoring complication even as the federal government reduces it.
Third, state grant programs should encourage on-time degree attainment by rewarding concrete accomplishments such as the completion of credit hours. Academic requirements embodied in state grant programs should provide meaningful incentives for success in college; they should not be focused exclusively on past achievement or be so high as to exclude students on the margin of college access and success. States should provide second chances for students who lose funding because they do not meet targets the first time around.
Many states have been forced to ration funds to balance their budgets. There may be no good options under these circumstances, but some choices are worse than others. An increasing number of states are adopting “first-come, first-served” models, providing assistance to those who apply early and denying aid to eligible students who apply after the money has run out. Instead, states under pressure to cut spending quickly could lower income limits; cut grants for all recipients, with the neediest students losing the least; or build more incentives for college completion into their programs.
Financial aid alone cannot bring educational attainment to its desired level or close the troubling disparities in outcomes between disadvantaged students and their more affluent peers. And encouraging students to complete more credit hours will not solve the time-to-degree problems at institutions that face capacity problems and do not provide access to the courses students require.
But state grant programs are among a limited set of policy levers available to lawmakers. These programs should be designed to use taxpayer dollars as effectively as possible to increase the educational opportunities and attainment levels of state residents. They should be viewed as part of an integrated system of higher education funding including appropriations for operating expenditures, tuition setting, and student aid.
States should use this time of financial exigency to carefully evaluate the effectiveness of existing grant programs and to put in place systems for periodic review of these programs. Last-minute budget slashing efforts have the potential to do serious damage to the states’ students, colleges and universities, and long-run economic health. Careful planning, program design, and monitoring can increase the effectiveness of vital state grant programs and maximize the impact of taxpayer dollars.
Sandy Baum is senior fellow at the George Washington University Graduate School of Education and Human Development and chair of the Brookings Institution State Grant Aid Study Group. Matt Chingos is fellow in governance studies and research director of Brookings's Brown Center on Education Policy and a member of the study group.
The University of Texas of the Permian Basin has introduced five bachelor's degrees in science fields for which the price tag for students will total $10,000 for a four-year degree, The Midland Reporter-Telegram reported. The degrees fulfill a challenge by Texas Governor Rick Perry, a Republican, to create $10,000 programs. Students in other programs at Permian Basin are charged about $25,000 for a four-year degree.
A study released today questions the extent to which Pell Grants and other need-based financial aid improved the retention and success of academically underprepared community college students in Louisiana. The study, conducted by researchers at Noel-Levitz and the American Institutes for Research and funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, found that increasing the amount of financial aid awarded to Louisiana community college students who needed remedial coursework did not improve their academic performance.
WASHINGTON – The House of Representatives passed a bill Friday to keep the interest rate on federally subsidized student loans at 3.4 percent for another year, but President Obama threatened to veto the measure because it would cover the $6 billion cost of the extension by cutting money in the health care reform law for preventive care and public health. Obama has seized the student loan issue as the campaign for the general election begins in earnest, touring college campuses and calling on Congress to act to stop the interest rate from doubling to 6.8 percent in July.
Democrats in the House and Senate proposed paying for the extension through either changing tax laws that allow owners of some corporations to avoid payroll taxes, or through cuts to oil subsidies. Republicans previously said they wanted a long-term solution rather than a short-term extension, and passed a budget for fiscal year 2013 that allowed the interest rate to increase.