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"New York Times" Columnist Ron Lieber Discusses His Latest Book, "The Price You Pay for College"

By Alison Southwick and Robert Brokamp, CFP(R) - Feb 10, 2021 at 10:13AM

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How to deal with saving for and preparing for your children's education.

In this episode of Motley Fool Answers, host Alison Southwick and Motley Fool personal finance expert Robert Brokamp are joined by New York Times columnist Ron Lieber to discuss his latest book, The Price You Pay for College. Also, Alison answers an old question with new research: Does money buy happiness?

To catch full episodes of all The Motley Fool's free podcasts, check out our podcast center. To get started investing, check out our quick-start guide to investing in stocks. A full transcript follows the video.

This video was recorded on February 2, 2021.

Alison Southwick: This is Motley Fool Answers. I'm Alison Southwick, and I'm joined as always by Robert -- better than an Ivy League educated -- Brokamp.

Robert Brokamp: [laughs] Well, thank you. It's such a nice compliment, I guess.

Southwick: [laughs] This week we're joined by Ron Lieber to discuss his new book, The Price You Pay for College: An Entirely New Roadmap for the Biggest Financial Decision Your Family Will Ever Make. All that, and not GameStop, because we're saving it for next week with Morgan Housel, on this week's episode of Motley Fool Answers.

Brokamp: So, Alison, what's up?

Southwick: Well, Bro, as the old adage goes, "Money can't buy happiness," just look at the 2010 Princeton study by economist Angus Deaton and psychologist Daniel Kahneman. They found that happiness goes up the more you make but it plateaus once you get to about $75,000 in income. It doesn't matter how much you're going to make after that, your happiness just really doesn't improve that much. There were a couple of takeaways from this, dare I say, landmark study. One being that once you have the basic necessities in life, more doesn't make you much happier; and the other takeaway being that the wealthier you are, the more you compare yourself to the Joneses and are ultimately left jealous and wanting to keep up. Look at Richard Cory, he owned one-half of this whole town, but was he happy? No. Now, don't you feel better? So enjoy working in his factory. But then, Wharton's Matthew Killingsworth had to come along with his study just this last month and restore that feeling of glückschmerz. Yes, the Germans have a word for feeling bad about the good fortune of others. Killingsworth collected 1.7 million data points from more than 33,000 participants who provided instant snapshots of their feelings during daily life. Essentially, it was an app, it would ping them throughout the day and ask them, "How are you feeling right now?" This measured what's called experienced wellness. He also asked people generally how happy they thought they were, their overall happiness, and apparently that's called evaluative well-being. Anyway, so what did he find? Did he confirm that once you look at people with income over $75,000, happiness plateaus and you just don't get that same happy bang for your buck no matter how much money you make?

Well, as it turns out, you continue to get happier as your income rises. The study didn't find any plateau in happiness after a certain level of income, neither in evaluated or experienced well-being. Why is this? Well, the researcher believes that higher earners are happier in part because of an increased sense of control over their life. To quote him, he says, "When you have more money, you have more choices about how to live your life. You can likely see this in the pandemic. People living paycheck to paycheck who lose their job, might need to take the first available job to stay afloat even if it's one they dislike. People with a financial cushion can wait for one that's a better fit. Across decisions, big and small, having more money gives a person more choices and a greater sense of autonomy." So, what's the lesson? Go out there and make as much money as you can, because your happiness will just keep skyrocketing? Actually, no, because the study also found that people who equate having money to success are actually miserable. They often work long hours and are stressed out about their time. There goes your sense of autonomy. Ultimately, the takeaway from this study is that money is just one factor to happiness, and while having money certainly beats not having money, it's ultimately about the sense of control, power, and autonomy that money affords you and a bunch of other factors too. I'll bet Richard Cory didn't get a lot of hugs growing up, so Bro, go hug your kids. [laughs]

Brokamp: I hug my kids all the time, thank you very much.

Southwick: I think that they're going to be happy, well adjusted kids.

Brokamp: If you are a parent, chances are that paying for college is one of your top financial goals, and it's not cheap. A four-year degree can cost anywhere between $100,000 and $300,000, and that range is one reason why it's so challenging. Parents are saving for a goal that has an unknown price tag. Here to discuss why that is and what to do about it, is New York Times Columnist Ron Lieber, who first appeared on our show in 2015 to discuss his book, The Opposite of Spoiled: Raising Kids Who Are Grounded, Generous, and Smart About Money. Ron's latest book, which just hit the bookshelves is entitled, The Price You Pay for College: An Entirely New Roadmap for the Biggest Financial Decision Your Family Will Ever Make. Ron Lieber, welcome to Motley Fool Answers.

Ron Lieber: Thank you so much for having me back.

Brokamp: So to me, your book has two major sections. One provides solid personal finance advice on how to pay for college and anyone who reads your columns knows that's what you would provide. But the other is a critique of, and dare I say, a diatribe about the higher education industrial complex. What's your major beef with the way the actual cost of college is determined for any given family?

Lieber: I guess my beef is the lack of transparency and the lack of predictability. These are two different things and it would be easy to get super granular on both of them, but you pretty much nailed it in the intro. This is perhaps the biggest financial decision that any family will ever make, and yet we don't know ahead of time even within $100,000 what the final price might be, and that's because of unpublished discounts, sometimes ones that are totally unpredictable, and a few of which are the sorts of discounts that families don't even know exist and might never find out about if they are not offered to them.

Brokamp: So that discount part is interesting. In fact, you talked a little bit about the history of college and discounting really didn't begin until maybe the '80s or so. There was some push-back originally from college, especially when you call it merit aid because college is basically like, "We accepted you, that's enough merit recognition as it is." Then it became more and more of a thing to where now, actually most people who apply to a private college will get some help and the average is around 50% or so.

Lieber: Exactly. This gets super messy and it helps to try and break it down linearly if possible. Think about it this way. When you and I Bro were going through the system, most if not all of the financial aid was given out on the basis of financial need. That was determined by what you had and what you earned with an emphasis on your income, so that was need-based financial aid. Then round about the 1980s but really ramping into place in the 1990s, a separate system hived off that became known as merit aid. Those discounts had nothing to do with what you had and what you earned, and lots of affluent people got them. Originally, they were designed to reward the very best candidates, the very best prospects. Why? So, the institution could attempt to buy prestige. Buying prestige means buying better students through the use of discounts so that your average SAT score, your average GPA for incoming students went up, that would be impressive to U.S. News. U.S. News would raise you in the rankings, and then being higher in the rankings would mean hopefully that you won't have to give as many discounts away because more people would want to come.

But the problem with it is that it worked too well. Once one school does it, the one down the road does it, and the next year the one after that and the first one responds. Pretty soon, you're in a situation where we are today, where all but the most 40 or 50 selective schools offer some kind of merit aid, and the next 50 most selective are struggling not to have to offer it to everybody. Then down below that, everybody gets a pony, and it just depends on what color your pony is and how fast the pony rides and the accessories that come with the pony. But the thing is, the majority, maybe even the vast majority of families have no idea how the mechanism of merit aid actually works. Every spring, my inbox fills up with people crying. Literally sophisticated people or people who have my cellphone number calling me on the phone at night, saying, "Why didn't anybody explain this to me? I did not shop for this in a sophisticated fashion," and so that ends now with this book because we are pulling the curtain back and we are going to explain this to people, and they will understand it and they will shop in a more intelligent way.

Brokamp: At the end of it, you include your cellphone number, which is very helpful. [...] [laughs] But one thing you do write about is that you wrote the colleges or the consultants that they hire, suck up all kinds of data about applicants that they've then used to set the price they'll charge. Tell us what they are looking at and how they use it.

Lieber: Sure. Well, put yourself in the position of a mid-tier small private liberal arts college in the Midwest, not in a city. You've got trouble, because of declining birth rates, particularly in the hot-land. The list price for your school is pretty expensive. Only the families that have benefited from inequality can actually afford it, and you're in an extremely competitive marketplace. This is an industry with competitors who are slugging it out. What would you do? You can't really change what your buildings look like, you can't change your brand in the marketplace very quickly. You certainly can't change your tenured faculty and swap them out. But you can play around with price. How do you play around with price in sophisticated fashion? You offer different prices to different people depending on who you think they are.

It's not rocket science, but we are all surprised that it's happening in higher education because we somehow expect more, or maybe we expect less, maybe we expect that it's more genteel, but it just ain't, it is not genteel. They hire these consultants and they suck up information on your zip code, which is a pretty good proxy for your affluence in your household income, and then if you use that plus your child's level of demonstrated interest based on how often they're visiting the website and how quickly they respond to text messages and other clues they have. They're looking for information not just about SAT scores and GPAs, but also on how students from your kids' high school have historically responded to other discount offers in previous years and whether they rejected them or whether they came to the school, whether they stuck it out. All of that gets sucked into a giant computer machine and an algorithm uses the data to tell the office what kind of discount to offer your teenager.

Brokamp: Yeah, that was interesting to me, if not somewhat creepy, and that they measure how quickly you open the emails, how often you visit the website, how long do you stay on the website that I had no idea about. Since you mentioned small schools in the Midwest. In 2018, we had a couple of guys from, it's called if I'm remembering it correctly. They said, one way to get aid, is to apply to schools where you are different in some way. They offered an example of the geographic difference zone. They said if you're on the East Coast like we are, we are in the DC suburbs, maybe look at a small school in the Midwest. That's what we did with our daughter, found a charming little school in Ohio, and sure enough they offered so much merit aid that was actually cheaper than staying in state. That school was the College of Wooster, which was the only school in your book that got a whole chapter. Now I will say, my daughter ended up not going, because she wanted to stay in state, so she stayed in the state and won't even marry, but we did love the College of Wooster. Tell us a little bit about what they do that's unique and what you wish other schools would do.

Lieber: I did multiple lapses of America and the reporting for the price you pay for college. I was reasonably sure that I wanted to find a school that told an interesting story about differentiation. Because you go and visit these schools and a lot of people are making decisions on the basis of feelings, which I don't trust my feelings generally when I'm making such an enormous financial decision. I certainly don't trust my feelings on the basis of a three-year, four-hour stop on a multi-day marathon involving multiple states and nine schools. I don't like this notion of feel. I want people to make decisions on the basis of data, or if not data, then on some evidence of true differentiation. I was looking for schools that are operating in the part of the marketplace where you have to offer merit aid, but they're not truly, completely desperate either.

There are a lot of small schools in Ohio and Minnesota, small private colleges that qualify, a bunch of them in Pennsylvania too and elsewhere. What intrigued me about the college of Wooster. A couple of things. There is very little data, precious little that exists on the quality or nature of a satisfied customer of undergraduate education who is 24 years old. We know very little about what those folks say, about what made them happy. Mitch Daniels, the president of Purdue, finally went out and commissioned a bunch of research with Gallup, and that work went on for years and years and generated some pretty interesting data. One of which is that the people who are most happy as young adults after getting out of college are people who developed a mentorship relationship while they were an undergrad and got to work on a long-term project. What makes Wooster unique is that every single senior does what's known as an IS, and now I'm going to forget what it stands for.

Brokamp: Independent study.

Lieber: Yeah, maybe individual study. I think it is an independent study. It's essentially a senior thesis by another name, but everybody does it. They take it so seriously that you use at least two full classes worth of credit for and the entire undergraduate experience builds up to it. At the end in April, they throw this academic Woodstock on a Friday where everybody shows up, all classes are canceled, all this delicious food, the parents come, alumni come and everybody presents their IS project. I can spend a week watching this, and the parents are amazed, slacked-jawed that these raw teenagers who they sent over there now in the art gallery with an enormous painting that fills literally an entire wall. Where this one guy Jeremy Smucker did two IS, one of them was a collection of individual songs that he wrote and sang based on a poetry from the poet Laura, and then he did an economics presentation about end-of-life decision-making in nursing homes depending on what incentives are provided. I've never seen fluidity like this before in an undergraduate. Mentored Undergraduate Research, they've now branded it at Wooster and it is a unique offering.

The other thing that they do there that is almost completely unique is that they are utterly and completely transparent on the front end around pricing, they have what is effect like quasi-concierge service where if you're curious enough about Wooster to call them up and ask, they will evaluate your package before you even apply, and give you an assessment, not just of what need-based aid you might qualify for, but about what merit aid range you would be in as well. You can effectively get the bottom-line price before you even apply. About six months ago, Whitman College in Washington started doing the same thing, which is great. Wooster's unique in that perspective too and what falls out from that? Well, I think every shopper for an undergraduate education needs to go to every other school and say, what are the chances that my kid is going to find a mentor here? How do you engineer that? Doesn't have to be through a mandatory Senior thesis for everybody, you may not be practical to a large school, but is the school even tracking that? Is it trying to nudge faculty members into forming mentorship relationships? Or is it the kind of school where the faculty competes to avoid and ignore undergraduates and spend no time with them because of actual contempt for real teenagers? [laughs] This is the thing. You should go to your financial aid office and other places you're thinking about applying to and say, why won't you give me a merit aid pre-read, the same way that Wooster or Whitman does? If they look at you cross-eyed, just tell them that Ron Lieber sent you. Because eventually everybody is going to need to do this. We need more transparency when this thing can cost over a quarter of a million dollars, and I'm going to do it to be so.

Brokamp: It's interesting because you did talk about in the book how where you have these universities that are often really research places, and the professors are really not that interested in teaching, they're much more interested in research. There is some research that indicates that some kids who go to college actually don't learn that much.

Lieber: It's true. Look, I don't blame these professors necessarily, because the incentive structures that are in place, both in terms of internal institutional advancement, promotion, and tenure, and then also the ability to hoover up resources and hoard them, it's based almost entirely on your research prowess, your ability to attract external funding, say, thus you can build and maintain a lab. These are the things that are rewarded in larger institutions, much less so at smaller [...] colleges in particular, where there's much more of an emphasis on teaching. But as far as the learning goes, sure, there are end-of-term assessments, there are final exams, and all the rest of that, and that provides enough evidence for the professors themselves of the progress that students are making. But if you look at overall critical thinking skills, analytical skills, certainly career readiness skills, we don't have much evidence that students are making all that much progress. Shockingly, given the number of PhDs floating around these places, the schools themselves appear to be remarkably uncurious. Because the point at which you start engaging in a more rigorous set of measurements about the quantity and quality of learning that's going on, eventually that leaks out. If everybody does it the same way, then it becomes another thing that schools have to worry about in terms of external ranking. I understand that the incentive structures do not necessarily encourage better measurement of the learning that goes on, and that measuring learning is costly, but we should just be real about the fact that the small bit of work that's been done on the topic finds that on average all sorts of undergraduates really don't make much progress at all.

Brokamp: You've got a situation here where we understand that sometimes kids aren't actually increasing their applicable job skills or critical thinking skills. You talk in the book about how many career centers aren't very good at colleges, the price keeps going up. So some people might conclude, "Well, I shouldn't even go to college at all," but you're not necessarily suggesting that.

Lieber: I am not suggesting that. I think this notion of the six-figure welder, and the six-figure plumber, and the six-figure electrician, those people are out there. I do question how much access any given high school student or any given family has to easy entry into some of the more lucrative trades. Some of them are controlled by unions, others are just hard to penetrate for an average person. I still believe the default should be higher education. The economic data are clear, roughly $1 million of extra earnings for people who actually complete the bachelor degree. But it is also the case that all sorts of people go to college and don't finish, or don't finish quickly in a way that's expensive. The more pointed question I would urge families to ask themselves is, what makes you so sure that your 18-year-old is ready for college right now? If your 18-year-old thinks that they might have an interest in a trade, or in going straight into programming, or something else like that, why not give it a shot for a year or two? If it turns out not to work and they crave more interaction with their peers and going and trying that really turns them on to the idea of getting back into the classroom with a bigger head of steam, then its become a gap year where they've acquired incredible life experience, and not only does the data prove that people who take a year or two off get better grades in the classroom, anecdotal evidence suggests that if you're 23 years old coming out of college instead of 22, employers are going to look at your resume a lot more carefully because you're just more interesting. You stepped off the path that everybody thinks that you should stay on, and then you've gone and done something that's taught you something about the world, and maybe you've got a skill that you didn't have before and your head set more squarely on your shoulders. Who would you hire?

Brokamp: A big decision that parents will make is, do you go to the state school, or do you pay up for the more prestigious selective school? You provide some research on that. It's somewhat mixed. Tell us a little bit about that.

Lieber: Well, I would not necessarily default to the assumption that the private school is going to cost us that much more. Maybe your goal is going to be the private institution that needs to come in within $5,000 of what the state school would cost. In states like Illinois, for instance, or New Jersey, where state subsidies have fallen by a lot and the states are in some level of fiscal distress, the flagship state school can cost $30,000 a year all-in, including room-and-board. There are plenty of really good small liberal arts colleges that will discount to certainly $35,000 for an above-average student. So you can get that experience without it needing to cost a lot. Now, you may still want to shoot for the more selective institutions that don't discount, and that's fine, but that can be a $200,000 difference. You have to ask yourself, "What am I going into college for? Is it education? Is it the kinship? Is it the credential?" Then once I have established that for myself for I've decided how big each of those three pieces should be in my three-piece pie, then you need to go through a long list of things that might be worth paying extra for, and all of part three of my book is about this, and I arm people with a list of questions for each one. But it's things like, "Where am I going to get the highest salary?" Maybe you're from a low-income background and all you want to do is take care of your parents the way that they took care of you. So you're looking for the best engineering program, you're looking for the best computer science undergraduate degree, something like that. The best financing statistics program, so you can go to Wall Street and be a trader. Maybe your goal is, "I want to go to a top five marine biology PhD program." There are ways using federal data, and I describe it in the book, to figure out what the feeder undergraduate programs are for biology PhD programs.

With a little bit of legwork, you can figure out, "Where are these marine biology PhD students coming from?" You can find those undergraduate institutions. You can see who might be your mentor there, and you can decide if that's worth paying up for as an undergraduate so that you can get into the good PhD program where you will be fully funded. On and on it goes, through figuring out whether small size is worth paying extra for, whether a diverse school is worth paying extra for, schools that have real teachers who actually want to be in the classroom, trying to figure out whether a single-sex institution is worth paying up, mostly for women, because there are very few single-sex male schools. On and on and on down the list. Some of these things will be irrelevant to you and some of these things will be of vital importance. Once you've figured it out for your family, you can hone in on the list of questions that's appropriate for you, and see if schools provide not just a satisfying answer, but a thrilling one. Then you will be armed with enough information to decide whether your family and your circumstances are such that you are willing to pay for what seems like an upgrade.

Brokamp: Let's get a little bit into more of the nuts and bolts of spending. In your book you talked about a system or I guess really a thought process in a way that was just suggested to you by a financial planner, that basically breaks it up into fractions in terms of how you're going to actually pay for the degree. Talk to us a little bit about that.

Lieber: I'm glad you asked, because one of the responses to the book so far and the excerpts that we ran in the New York Times last weekend that's surprised me the most, it's been fear. I thought [laughs] what I was doing was providing the opposite of fear, like an antidote to fear, a blueprint toward hope. This to me is a little disturbing, [laughs] and so one of the ways we get people back from the ledge is that we give them a plan that feels doable. Now, the most important component of this plan is that you start early, hopefully when the baby is in utero or when you sign the deal with the adoption agency and the kid is hopefully six to 12 months away from coming, and it's a 20-year plan, and it's pretty simple, it's just divided in thirds. Let's say that your goal above all else is to get the kid to College Park, Maryland, or Charlottesville, Virginia, those flagship state universities in the Mid-Atlantic states. Those will run you roughly $100,000 all-in to get the kid through, if there is no discount in today's dollars. You divide that in thirds, and it's $33,000 in savings over 20 years. Right away that starts to feel doable. $125 box a month, earn 6% in a basic mutual fund, you're good to go. $33,000 out of current income. That's $8,000 from the parents who may eat some more rice and beans than they usually do and cancel a few vacations. Hopefully, a middle-class or an upper-middle-class family can get there, and if not, the students can earn $8,000 a year relatively easily working 15 hours a week on campus and full-time in the summer. Then you borrow $33,000, and the student can borrow just about that much on their own through the federal student loan program, and you're done. Or the parents could borrow some too and you can split it up 50/50. So that starts to feel doable and reasonable when you break it down that way. Now, that doesn't solve for Johns Hopkins, it doesn't solve for Franklin & Marshall, it doesn't solve the $300,000 bill. But we can make the process for getting to a very good state institution feel manageable to families. I want them to feel this is doable.

Brokamp: The idea of paying for it out of income is something that perhaps people don't appreciate. But once you've reached your 50s, late 40s, which is generally the age you are when your kids go to college, those are your peak earning years. Ideally you are making more money. I'll just say anecdotally, as someone who's had kids in college, once they're out of the house, some of your bills go down. You're not spending as much on food. You're not spending as much on utility. There is some savings on your own personal budget, once they leave the house.

Lieber: Right. That's an important component of it. Once you break it down in that granular fashion, it starts to feel doable. Because if a kid can earn $10,000 a year, maybe parents can contribute $7,000 a year. They've got $17,000 to work with instead of the $8,000 that that plan provides, or that plan accounts for. Then maybe you take on less debt or then maybe you don't have to save as much. This can be done if you think about it systematically and you break it down year by year, then it starts to feel doable. I don't want people to feel intimidated because there are so many people who just put their heads in the sand out of fear. Or simply don't have the mental space for it because their lives are already so strained by disruptions in employment or kids with special needs. I'm not shaming or blaming anybody who hasn't gotten started yet. I'm just trying to encourage people to take even just 15 minutes, make a plan, start siphoning off something. Even if it's just $25 a month to get in the habit. I can just guarantee you that it will feel better if you've got a plan.

Brokamp: Just a couple of more questions here. You talk about when to talk to your kids about this, you target around eighth grade. Tell us a little bit about why you think that's a good age for them to start thinking about this.

Lieber: It's interesting to hear you use the word good as a modifier for age because there's a lot of people on Twitter really mad at me right now for suggesting this. Because they think that this notion puts too much pressure on kids. How does it put too much pressure on kids? Well, I feel you have to tell kids the truth as it exists when they're 14, because they're certainly capable of figuring out for themselves. The truth is that your high school grades could be worth $100,000 in discounts at some schools in the form of merit aid. Don't you have to tell them that before they start high school? Aren't they going to be really mad if you don't, especially if you're deliberately hiding it from them because you think it could do them damage? The response to that is these kids already feel enough pressure. These kids being upper middle class kids and upper middle class competitive communities. I'm not sure that all kids really feel that way on the whole, but I get where these parents are coming from. These are not good choices. I do not endorse these two choices as being our only choices. But this is the system as it exists in the world.

To opt out of it entirely, means to have no particular strategy for you or your family heading toward decisions around higher education. Look, that can work, right? A C-student who spends their spare time tinkering in the basement or working a minimum wage job, or doing nothing but playing soccer or ice hockey. That kid can go to college and do just fine. You can go to an open enrollment university. You can go to community college and shoot the lights out there and then transfer to the state university that would never have touched you with your C average coming out of high school. These things are possible. But for better or for worse, I spend my days in service to people with above average income and unfortunately above average anxiety. I'm just trying to help them work the system as it exists. My colleagues on the [...] New York Times, they're trying to blow up the system and God bless them. I endorse systems being blown up. But I'm just trying to help people deal with what's in front of them.

Brokamp: Let's wrap up with a final question here. You have two kids ages five and 15. To the extent you feel comfortable telling us what you are doing to plan for covering the cost of college and has anything changed as a result of you writing this book?

Lieber: I'm following the same blueprint for our girls that I encourage other people to follow. We started at year 0, we started in utero with 529 savings plans for both of them. We save as much as we reasonably can. Our goal is certainly not to save the full cost before they get to college. In part, because we don't know whether they'll end up at schools that offer merit aid, and maybe the cost of them will be much less than today's dollars than the full price might be. We just don't know. Nothing about what I do in my personal life is different from what I suggest in the book, including this tip which I encourage people to deploy, which is that our 529 statement comes on paper. It doesn't come electronically.

I like opening that envelope for a couple of reasons. First of all, it makes me feel good as a parent, whatever other failings I may have. When that piece of paper shows up, it is a physical reminder that at least this one thing, I am getting that right. Me and my wife are getting that right. We are getting that done. Crossed off the list, gold star, pat on the head. That at least is going well. It's also a trigger to duck into my 15-year-old's bedroom and just say, "Hey look, the statement came again. Just want to remind you that we're on it. This part we have covered and we've got X% of the most expensive school in America paid for, and part of the reason you may not see us sometimes at night and on the weekends is to do this." We want to make sure that she's comfortable too. The thing that was not so surprising to me because my hypothesis was that this would be true, but it was reassuring for me. I spend a lot of time reporting at schools that I've never seen before, partly out of my own personal curiosity. But I also wanted to get out of my comfort zone, which just happened to be the Chicagoland area where I grew up and the greater Northeast where I've spent all of my adult life. I've spent a bunch of time in Ohio, in North Carolina, Minnesota, California, Colorado, checking places out that I'd just never seen before and talking to the people who are not obsessed with coastal insanity or big city insanity. It was a reminder for me that there are just so many colleges in the country. Whatever you may hate about our system, we have a ton of choices, a couple of thousand of them for undergraduates. That's amazing. Hundreds of them. I believe my daughters could have an amazing time, meet amazing people, have their brains rearranged by master instructors and come out with a credential that will be meaningful and useful in their lives. I worry less now than I did eight years ago when I first started to conceive of this project.

Brokamp: Which is why, of course, your last chapter was entitled Hope. Very appropriate. Again, our guest today has been Ron Lieber, the Your Money columnist for The New York Times and the author of the new book, The Price You Pay for College: An Entirely New Roadmap for the Biggest Financial Decision Your Family Will Ever Make. Ron, thanks again for joining us on Motley Fool Answers.

Lieber: It was a pleasure and a thrill to be back. Thank you.

Southwick: That's the episode. It's edited collegially by Rick Engdahl. Our email's For Robert Brokamp, I'm Alison Southwick. Stay Foolish, everybody!

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