From Grandparents to Grandkids: How the College Admissions Process Has Changed

Creating a better understanding between generations
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Today, grandparents of college-bound teenagers have an experiential chasm that can complicate intergenerational understanding. Depending on the senior member’s age, his or her formative years may have involved the Vietnam War, black-and-white TV, and a robust job market in which only 10 percent of those employed possessed a four-year degree. 

Conversely, modern teens are growing up with the internet, social media and open-world video games that are literally rewiring their brains. They’re also growing up in a world where, in order to enter the majority of desirable professions, an advanced university degree is likely a prerequisite. 

With an aim toward facilitating meaningful conversations between grandparents and grandkids, let’s first explore how college has changed in recent decades. 


Higher Tuition 

As we get older, it’s easy to fall into a nostalgic trap on the subject of how much things cost (i.e. “When I was a boy, you could feed a family of four for a Buffalo nickel”). Yet, when it comes to lamentations about rising college expenses, there is actual data to back up the sticker shock. In 1950, the University of Pennsylvania charged $600 per year to attend — that’s roughly $6,000 in 2018 money.

Today, the school’s annual cost of attendance is more than $75,000. By 1960, most private institutions charged $1,500-$2,000, which equates to $12,000-$16,000 today. In the current marketplace, a $50,000 tuition fee would be considered “reasonable.” This is hardly just a private school phenomenon. UNC-Chapel Hill’s in-state 2018-19 tuition cost of $8,758 is one the best bargains in all of higher education. Of course, this rate pales in comparison to the university’s average in-state tuition amount of 30 years ago — just $504 per year. (No, that’s not a typo.) 


Changes in Competition 

You don’t need to look back to the ’50s, ’60s or even ’70s to find a college admissions landscape vastly different from today’s hyper-competitive state of existence. In 1980, nearly half of all applicants were accepted into prestigious Swarthmore College. The class of 2022 had a 9 percent acceptance rate. As recently as 1990, the University of Chicago accepted 60-70 percent of those who applied. In 2022, just 7 percent were successful. 

For North Carolina-based examples, look no further than Davidson College, which admitted 18.7 percent of applicants in 2018 — close to half the success rate of two decades prior. At the dawn of the new millennium, Wake Forest University welcomed 49 percent of applicants, approximately double that of the 2018 figure. 


How Grandparents Can Help

On the pragmatic end, contributing to a grandchild’s 529 College Savings Plan starting when he or she is very young can make a monumental impact. Unlike mutual funds and many other traditional savings vehicles, earnings in a 529 account grow tax-free and are never subject to any taxes, as long as the money is ultimately used for education-related expenses — which aren’t limited to college tuition. Room and board, textbooks and nontraditional postsecondary paths, such as enrollment at a technical school, are covered as well.

Beyond monetary contributions, perhaps the most essential contribution a grandparent can make to his or her grandchild’s post-secondary futures is the gift of perspective. The college admissions game is so all-consuming and high-stakes that many young people, understandably, develop tunnel vision and experience high levels of stress during the college admissions process. It is here that a grandparent’s wisdom can be a godsend. A reminder of what really leads to a fulfilling and successful life — hard work, consistency, loyalty, honesty, love, creativity and kindness — can help mitigate the stress of admissions mania and assist a grandchild in navigating this challenging time in his or her life. 


Dave Bergman, Ed.D., is a co-founder of College Transitions, a team of college planning experts committed to guiding families through the college admissions process. He is also co-author of “The Enlightened College Applicant: A New Approach to the Search and Admissions Process.” Learn more at

Categories: College Planning, College Transitions, Education, Grandparents, Lifestyle