If you or your children are in school, you’ve probably thought about the cost of college. Indeed, Ron Lieber says parents should think, and if possible save, even earlier. The Price You Pay for College. Harper Collins, 2021, will help you think. It’s really two books. What higher education costs and how to pay for it. Why is American higher education unique, and uniquely expensive?

Generally speaking, the world’s universities are funded by governments. They offer higher education. Period! Students organize their own room and board and recreation. They are adults: their academic progress is their own responsibility; their health and safety theirs and the public’s. So universities are (relatively) cheap.

American universities and colleges are different. Governments pay relatively little; parents bear a large responsibility for higher education. Typical (full-time, residential) undergraduates are seen as children requiring academic counseling, mental and physical health care, room and board (preferably luxurious) and limitless recreation opportunities. So college is expensive.

And American colleges offer a wide range of benefits. Are you most concerned about intellectual development? Social networks? Immediate or long-term job prospects? Decide and choose.

What you pay depends on wealth, income, and knowledge. Need-based aid is what it says it is. “Merit aid” is another matter. It’s colleges’ bargaining tool for the middle classes (the rich pay sticker price). Colleges want to buy the best student who can’t or won’t pay sticker price. The better you look academically, the better the offer. Lieber discusses bargaining techniques.

High school sophomores: with scholarships, prizes, need-based and merit aid, work-study, and, if necessary, government-backed loans, you can go to a “good” college. If, that is, you take the right courses and get the right grades: a working agenda. Teachers, counselors, families can help. But essentially it’s up to the student.

If you, student or parent, need to investigate what colleges provide, what discounts they offer to whom, what’s the real scoop on loans, this book may be for you. Lieber spells out the value and availability of institutional and government websites, surveys, and studies. (Guidance counselors, if they don’t already know all this, should consult The Price.) It could be a contraceptive device: read it early and you may rethink your chosen number of children.

David R Jones worries about the cost of college.

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