Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Students Downsize College Dreams

Students downsize college dreams

By Michael Birnbaum

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Michael Parra loved the University of Delaware the moment he stepped on its campus, so much so that the aspiring civil engineer slapped a college sticker on his mother's bumper and sent in a deposit not long after he was admitted.

But after he learned that he would be $60,000 in debt by the end of his college years, he scuttled the plan and signed up with cheaper George Mason University, joining thousands of other high school seniors across the country who had to dial down their dreams before last week's college response deadline.

"We just don't have the money," said Parra, 17, who attends Wakefield High School in Arlington County, Va.

That's a refrain muttered across countless dinner tables this year, from those with single mothers such as Parra's who work two jobs to those with parents who started pouring money into college savings plans as soon as their children were born.

When a college counselor laid out the financial aid Delaware offered Parra, the student realized that half the package was loans, not grants as he initially thought. It wouldn't work, Parra decided. George Mason will pay most of his expected $8,000 annual in-state tuition, and he'll somehow come up with money for room and board.

Families who have seen retirement funds shrivel but make too much to qualify for need-based aid are nervous, too.

"This season, more families have asked me about the probability of getting merit packages than they have in years," said Steven Roy Goodman, a D.C.-based educational consultant and admissions strategist.

Parra's Wakefield classmate Clayton Miller, 17, also picked a Virginia public university in the end, even though neither his consultant mother nor his lobbyist father had big drops in income. Miller had dreamed of studying environmental science at the University of Texas.

But a college fund invested in the stock market dropped 40 percent this year. A full-tuition freshman year scholarship for valedictorians that he thought he qualified for turned out to be for Texas residents only.

Instead, Texas offered him a $6,000 merit scholarship. He'd be on the hook for $80,000 in loans after four years. Suddenly, Virginia Tech looked a lot more attractive. He sent in his deposit last month.

"I was devastated for a good three weeks," Miller said. "I'm still a little bitter about it."

The recession has touched Albert Einstein High School in Kensington, Md., in basic ways. Sales of yearbooks have plummeted, and teachers are opening their wallets to buy them for their students. A golf tournament will raise money for $2,500 scholarships, but for some students that might be woefully inadequate.

"It should be $20,000 for the way things really are," said Joseph Monte, a school counselor.

To pay tuition bills, some parents are scrambling to boost their income at a time when few jobs are available.

Mary Claire Erskine, 18, an Einstein senior, said that the difference between her scholarship money and the total bill at Oberlin College, where she sent a deposit last month, was about $40,000 a year. Her mother is a journalist at a time when many newspapers are trimming staff. Her father, an artist, is looking for another job.

Erskine is resigned to graduating from Oberlin with a big debt, with interest rates that might not be cheap in these times of tight credit. Rates for unsubsidized federal Stafford loans, a popular way of financing college, are just under 7 percent, and those of private loans can be much higher.

"It's increased my awareness of money and finances and what that all means," she said. "I'm going to be carrying this with me for however many years."

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