Submitted on Tuesday, 5/22/2012, at 3:34 PM

Interview by Peter Rooney

Throughout their decades-long careers, Thomas H. Parker and Joe Paul Case have engaged in hundreds of conversations about the cost of higher education.

Recently, Parker, Amherst College’s dean of admission, and Case, the college’s dean of financial aid, chatted about college costs once more. Their conversation came against the backdrop of a recent New York Times analysis that used the U.S. Department of Education’s College Navigator website to assess the net price of a college education by subtracting an institution’s average financial aid package of grants and scholarships from its total price. The analysis included charts of the nation’s lowest- and highest-net-price private and public colleges and universities, and revealed that Amherst’s net price of  $13,805 is the lowest of all highly selective colleges and universities.

Parker and Case recently answered questions about Amherst’s net price, its “sticker price” and the college’s commitment to making higher education affordable to every admitted student. (More questions about financial aid at Amherst? Read these Frequently Asked Questions and answers for U.S. and International students).

Q: The New York Times chart of lowest-priced colleges and universities is based on 2011 numbers and shows Amherst’s “net price” of $13,805 against a “total price” of $51,878. Can you provide some context for those terms and figures?

Dean of Financial Aid Joe Paul Case and
Dean of Admission Tom Parker

CASE: What was published in the Times comes from an annual submission of data to the U.S. Department of Education. Happily, it includes us on the list, and it appears that we are the least expensive of the most selective institutions in the United States. What’s being measured is the cost of attendance, minus average financial award for students receiving one. By “financial aid award” we mean, more specifically, grants and scholarships. So, we end up in that list, as we do on other lists regularly, for being quite generous in that we meet full need for all students, including international students.

PARKER: This net price represents a very significant commitment from the college that goes all the way up to the board of trustees and on down to the president, Joe, myself and many others on campus. It’s only possible because the board is willing to allocate about $41 million in scholarship aid every year to more than half of the student body. To me, that’s a very powerful statement about our commitment to affordability.

Q: How does one communicate to parents that a college’s total price or “sticker price” is often not what a family ends up paying? For example, at Amherst, the average financial aid award provided by the college is $41,150, and 60 percent of students receive scholarship aid.

PARKER: I think net price is a good place to start, because it’s a way of expressing in more simple terms something that’s very complex. I should add that, for my whole career, I’ve also tried to explain that the sticker price does not reflect the per-pupil expenditures [which, at Amherst, are currently about $80,000 per student per year].

Q: What about that middle-income or upper-middle-income family who believe that the full price of an Amherst education is out of their reach as well?

PARKER: A $200,000-[annual]-income family with one child in college is probably not likely to receive financial aid, or will receive a small amount of financial aid. From my perspective, for that family, it’s not a question of affordability, it’s a question of what they value. Nonetheless, that family will have to make sacrifices, just as Joe and I did in sending our own children to college.

CASE:  If you look at the financial aid appeals we receive [asking us to reconsider our initial decisions about financial aid], and we receive appeals from maybe one in six, the great majority of those appeals are families who have a substantial income and there’s no award or a small award. We get fewer appeals from lower-income families. For students from all backgrounds, we are able to meet a student’s full demonstrated need with a financial aid package that does not include loans, but obviously the financing burden is heavier for families of greater means.

Q: What would you say to families who worry that a college education is out of their reach?

PARKER: We have a long-standing commitment, as a college, to educate outstanding students, regardless of their ability to pay. We also have a high percentage of Pell Grant recipients compared to other institutions—21 to 22 percent, depending on the year. I would ask students and their families to visit our website and check out our financial aid calculator. They may find that a college education is even more affordable than they thought, and perhaps even more affordable than at their own state university.

Photo by Rob Mattson