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  • The Price You Pay for College: An Entirely New Roadmap for the Biggest Financial Decision Your Family Will Ever Make by Ron Lieber
  • Emily C. Chen-Bendle, Ed.D. and Gregory C. Wolniak, Ph.D.
Ron Lieber. The Price You Pay for College: An Entirely New Roadmap for the Biggest Financial Decision Your Family Will Ever Make. New York: Harper, 2021. 368 pp. $27.99. ISBN: 978-0062867308

In recent decades, the conspicuous rise in tuition, fees, and out-of-pocket costs associated with attaining a four-year college degree is among the most well-documented and heavily researched trends in higher education. For example, after adjusting for inflation, average tuition and fees at private nonprofit colleges and universities in 2020–2021 are twice what they were in 1990–1991; at public four-year institutions, tuition and fees for in-state students have grown 2.78 times since the early 1990s (Ma et al., 2020). Concerns about the implications of this growth have made their way into the popular press, with The Atlantic lamenting the advent of “Six-Figure Price Tags” at selective universities (Wong, 2019). Much of these concerns center on issues of access and equality of educational opportunity, where large segments of the college-going population are effectively priced out of attending many higher education institutions, particularly the more selective schools. College tuition and out-of-pocket costs present challenges for many, including those in the middle class (Zaloom, 2019). These challenges have social justice implications for students from lower-income families, from underresourced high schools, and who are members of historically underrepresented ethnoracial groups within U.S. higher education.

It is in this context that Ron Lieber, personal finance columnist for the New York Times, authored The Price You Pay for College: An Entirely New Roadmap for the Biggest Financial Decisions Your Family Will Ever Make. The book explores college as a consumer (i.e., private) product and aims to help readers more fully understand the complex processes used by selective institutions to determine which applicants are admitted. The book ultimately aims to help students and families navigate the process of selecting and paying for college.

Drawing on publicly available data, research published in academic journals, the popular press, and his own experience, investigations, and interviews, Lieber’s text is the work of a journalist rather than an academic or policy expert. However, the careful curation of external sources and Lieber’s own astute interviews signal the depth and breadth of knowledge that Lieber, who has extensive experience writing about personal finance, brings to his work.

The book is divided into five large sections, each of which is subdivided into bite-sized chapters addressing specific topics. The book does not need to be read as a whole to be useful; in fact, its structure suggests that Lieber intended his audience to read applicable sections as needed. Many sections function well as standalone works. Together, these sections present an overview of college pricing and merit aid (Chapters 1–5), the emotional aspects of paying for college (Chapters 6–8; note that while Lieber focuses on this largely and explicitly from a parent’s perspective, the text may be useful to guardians as well), what students get out of college (Chapters 9–20), money-saving strategies (Chapters 21–27), and guidance about how to approach the college search and financial aid process (Chapters 28–35). [End Page 267]

Lieber successfully delivers a robust and interesting discussion of pricing and offers a useful personal finance text. However, to fully contextualize the book, one must recognize that Lieber has targeted readers who have significant resources at their disposal, including time and finances. A discussion of this book cannot be separated from a discussion of the implications of targeting such a book to such an audience.

Lieber begins his book (Part I: The Price and Cost of College and the Systems Behind It, Chapters 1–5) by discussing well-known concerns about the rising costs of college to families and students—a concept he is careful to refer to as pricing—and the prevalence of financial aid, noting, “89 percent of students at private colleges get a need-based or...