Book Review – The Price You Pay for College

From time to time, we like to review some of the books available for parents of college students.  There is a wealth of literature available to help parents cope with the transition to college and the changes that occur throughout the college years.  We’ve offered some lists of recommended reading, and there is something for everyone. Visit our Resources page for suggestions of important books for college parents and their students.

Having worked in higher education for nearly forty years, and having put three daughters through college, I thought I understood how colleges work. After reading Ron Lieber’s most recent book The Price You Pay for College: An Entirely New Road Map for the Biggest Financial Decision Your Family Will Ever Make, I realized how little I knew about the complexity and inner workings of admission and financial aid.

This book might have entirely changed the way our family approached admission and tuition had it been available when we needed it. Every family with a child considering college should read this book — especially if your child has their sights set on a more competitive or expensive school.

Parents looking for a book of quick tips for financing a college education will not find them here. The advice is there in the book, but with much more depth and background than a book about how to hack your college costs would allow. The approach of The Price You Pay for College is that planning for the costs of college begins with defining what success means to your family and student and exploring your own values. It’s sometimes uncomfortable work.

The book is crammed with detailed information that you don’t at first expect in a financial book, but once you read it, it all makes sense. In addition to the necessary number crunching, it looks at the human side — the potential emotions such as guilt and fear and shame that lie behind how we feel about and understand college.

Perhaps one of the most practical and important aspects of The Price You Pay for College is the questions woven throughout that parents and student can and should ask of colleges. As you encounter the questions, you realize how much you need to understand about a school to evaluate its value for your student and what you will or won’t be paying for.  Samples of some of these nuggets  –

  • Can you please describe how your institutional research office or the individual academic departments measure progress in learning? Do you attempt to measure how much time students are studying outside the classroom?
  • What will your professors do here to make my child’s life harder?
  • What are the biggest disagreements about race and other issues from the last twelve to twenty-four months, and how did people on campus attempt to resolve them? What still isn’t resolved, and how do people feel about it?
  • Ask about the percentage of time that students spend in classes with more than fifty or one hundred or two hundred people. While you’re at it, ask them to break it down by year.

Don’t misunderstand, the tips for getting the most from your tuition dollars and accessing as much financial aid as possible are here in this book, but you must find them within the context of understanding all of the forces at play in higher education. You may come away from this book being able to pay less for college, but you will also come away understanding where the price you pay is going and why. The world of higher education will become at least a little bit more transparent.

If you have a child going to college, read this book as early in the process as possible. 

About the author:

Ron Lieber is the author of The Opposite of Spoiled and has been the Your Money columnist for the New York Times since 2008. Before coming to the New York Times, he wrote the ”Green Thumb” personal finance column for The Wall Street Journal and was part of the startup team at the paper’s Personal Journal section.

Ron’s first book Taking Time Off: Inspiring Stories of Students Who Enjoyed Successful Breaks from College and How You Can Plan Your Own, co-authored with Colin Hall, was a New York Times bestseller in 1996. He also wrote Upstart Start­-Ups, a book for young entrepreneurs, The Opposite of Spoiled: Raising Kids Who are Grounded, Generous and Smart About Money and was the co-author of a guidebook to the best entry­-level jobs in the United States.

Ron is a three-time winner of the Gerald Loeb Award, business journalism’s highest honor.  He lives in Brooklyn with his wife, New York Times reporter Jodi Kantor, and their two daughters.

What the author has to say about the book:

”To make sense of it all, you have to start with the elemental question that I’ve learned to ask about nearly every complicated area of personal decision-making that I’ve encountered as a journalist and a human being: What is the definition of success? Or, to put it another way, what is college — the residential undergraduate experience that so many traditional-aged students seek that is the primary focus of this book — for? . . .

This is not a book about the values that lead you to choose one or two of the definitions of undergraduate success over others, but it is a book about value. And if we learned anything from the first couple of semesters of college life in the age of corona, it’s that all those people paying five figures of money each year ought to have a clear idea of what it is they think they are buying.

The Price You Pay for College will help you figure this out for yourself. . .

I want, more than anything else, to make sure my daughters don’t have to think quite so hard about money during their undergraduate years [as I did] You may feel the same way.

This book is for them — and for you. . . I want us all to feel much more competent about this decision, given that it sure seems as though someone designed this entire multiyear gauntlet that we run to sow maximum confusion. I don’t doubt the sincerity or the good intentions of the thoughtful people I’ve met who are the gatekeepers and overseers at these schools. But something isn’t quite right in all of this and with this book I hope to help us all begin to make it right. . .

If nothing else, I hope this book helps you be much more emotionally honest with yourself. How might your feelings about this powerful — and powerfully expensive — transition point in the life of your family affect your decision-making in all sorts of ways?

There is no way to answer such cosmic questions about success and ambition and the emotions behind them without a lot more information. In these pages I’m going to provide a fair bit of it and then help you learn to gather everything else you need for yourself. . .

I do not have all the answers. I’m not even sure that I have all the best questions. But reading this book will help you develop your own lines of inquiry and more. . .

Parents have been paying so much for so long without knowing nearly enough about value, and too many people have been afraid to ask about it lest it affect their child’s admission or financial aid odds. That ends here, with my questions and yours, starting today.”

What others have to say about the book:

“ Understood as a self-help book, The Price You Pay for College represents an extraordinary achievement: It is comprehensive and detailed without being tedious, practical without being banal, impeccably well judged and unusually rigorous. But the main title hints at a sensibility deeper than friendly advice.

Lieber’s guidance attends closely to all of these effects. The book explains in detail how to apply for need-based aid, how to use publicly available data sets (down to columns and rows) to predict the merit aid that students will most likely receive, and how to appeal and bargain for more. Lieber reminds parents that they may be substantially richer than the financial aid officers they are bargaining with, so that both decency and prudence counsel against making entitled demands. He also advises parents on how to save for college: Begin early, use the tax-preferred vehicles that states offer and commit future increases in income to college savings first. Don’t blame yourself if you end up with less than absolutely enough. And, most important, ”try not to let the complexity of it all paralyze you into doing nothing at all to get ready.”

David Markovits — New York Times

”Lieber’s explanation of the system is probably the best I’ve seen from somebody outside it. His discussion of ”merit aid” even helped clarify some long-running argument that have been mildly confusing me in faculty meetings for twenty years. The description of what happens between the sticker price and the price a student actually pays is pretty dead on.”

Chad Orzel — Associate Professor at Union College — (Forbes review)

”A deeply reported, conventional-wisdom-busting guide to a subject that many of even the most financially adept and prepared individuals find terrifying. The book arrives at a moment when families are re-scrutinizing the price schools charge for tuition; how much debt students take on, and what exactly is worth the money and why.”

Town and Country

“Lieber helps families navigate this all-important financial decision by pulling back the curtain on the financial aid system and asking tough questions of financial aid gatekeepers. The end result is a book that helps families determine what they value—a metric even more important than the sticker tag of college.”


”A revealing and useful guide for the aspiring consumer of higher education.”

Kirkus Reviews

Note: Some links in our post are for affiliate products. If you use our links, College Parent Central receives a small percentage of your purchase price. This does not change the cost to you.  We think it’s only fair to let you know that.

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