Paying High Prices to Bear the College Burden

By Dave Marcus

Sitting at her computer in Northport, Valerie Rowe entered her family’s 2006 income and savings into an online version of a federal financial aid form. The computer spat back a number — the Expected Family Contribution they’d need to put their daughter through college.

Rowe sighed. Somehow, she and her husband, Randy, would have to fill a gap as large as $90,000 during the next four years.

“Maybe we should find a place that buys kidneys,” Randy said.

“We’re going to be paying for this until the day we die,” Valerie said. She wasn’t joking.

As parents on Long Island and across the nation settle in this month with the 99-question form known as the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, they face a cumbersome process to pay the ever-increasing cost of college. In this phase of the months-long college-selection marathon, the pressure shifts from the students to the parents.

There’s never been more aid available for families — $152 billion from the government and private sources. Yet it’s often not enough. For the past two decades, tuition at public and private colleges has been rising twice as fast as the cost of living. The numbers are dramatic: Tuition, room and board for a year at Duke is $33,000, Northwestern $44,000 and Wesleyan $45,000 — plus thousands more for books and extras. Thirty years ago, tuition room and board cost $2,465 at Stony Brook University. Now, it’s $14,826.

Popularity of loans
Huge loans are a must for many families that choose private colleges. Last year, Congress raised interest rates on federally guaranteed education loans by 1.5 percentage points, meaning a $20,000 loan will cost $1,800 more to repay during 10 years. More than 60 percent of all students get some kind of aid. The typical financial aid package is nearly 60 percent loans, 40 percent grants.

The burden is especially heavy on Long Island and other expensive areas. The government’s formula for determining financial aid, used by many of the nation’s 2,533 colleges, factors income but does not account for the costs of housing, energy, insurance or sales and property taxes. Even considering many Long Islanders’ spending choices, family income and costs are far higher here.

“We get clobbered on Long Island,” Jacquelyn Nealon, vice president of enrollment services at the New York Institute of Technology, said earlier this month as a sea of heads nodded in agreement at a seminar in Dix Hills. “A family of four making $150,000 or even $80,000 is doing well in Iowa, Kentucky or Nebraska, but not here.”

Colleges’ soaring costs are driven by the urge to update wireless communication, laboratory equipment and health services even as state support lags behind inflation. To impress today’s more brand-conscious students, private campuses in particular have poured resources into an academic arms race. “Schools are being compelled to spend more on student services, small class sizes, student centers, science centers and technology,” said David Zimmerman, director of the Williams College Project on the Economics of Higher Education. Administrators’ focus on helping the poorest kids has resulted in a middle-class squeeze: They are neither poor enough to qualify for some aid nor rich enough to pay the bills on their own.

Randy and Valerie Rowe’s daughter, Liana, a senior at Northport High School, dreams of a career on stage. She hasn’t found a drama program she likes at a SUNY campus, so the Rowes are looking at pricier private campuses. Liana echoes the frustration of many: “It’s harder to get into a good college if you’re from Long Island, and if you do get in, you can’t afford it.”

In the 1970s, Valerie Rowe lived with her parents in Bayside, Queens, and took three subways and a bus to Hunter College, part of the tuition-free City University of New York. The sheer expense of college and the rising expectations of Long Islanders, however, have wiped away the comparatively quaint world in which she and her generation went to college.

Merit aid arrives on scene
One of the big changes is the emergence of “merit aid,” special packages of cash and academic-program placements tailored for the most coveted high-achievers. In 2005, nearly 8 percent of undergraduates received merit aid from colleges eager to burnish reputations.

And in an era when people are accustomed to scouring Internet sites for discounts, they are less willing to pay the standard tuition rate. “Parents have learned to be much bolder about asking for more financial aid, and if colleges really want a student, they’ll often help,” said Steve Goodman, an independent college adviser who works with many Long Island students from offices in Manhattan and Washington, D.C.

Last spring, Goodman helped a family negotiate with two colleges that had accepted their son. After the student stressed his interest in Tufts, the college increased its grants slightly, from $2,000 to $2,500. When the student talked to Colgate, its grant offer doubled — from $5,000 to $10,000. He enrolled.

The news about government aid has been bleak for middle-class families for several years, but is starting to improve. While shrinking the pool of money for loans by nearly $13 billion last year to reduce the federal deficit, Congress also created grants for low-income students interested in studying math or science. Earlier this month, the Democrat-led House proposed cutting interest rates in half for some loans.

For every Long Island family like the Rowes, who own a home and have some savings, someone’s just getting by. With a combined income of $35,000 from working on a farm and cleaning houses, Marcelino and Jauquina Rojano of Bridgehampton have held on to very little. Their oldest child, Matthew, has applied to five SUNY schools, and the other night Marcelino and Jauquina joined him at a financial aid seminar at Bridgehampton Elementary and High School. The guest speaker, who was sponsored by Bank of America, rattled off a mishmash about loans and grants: Pells, Perkins, PLUS, Staffords and Coverdales.

“You can consider converting assets like stocks and bonds and real estate, and you can refinance your house,” said the speaker, Kendall Clark.

The Rojanos stared straight ahead. They don’t own stocks, and they live in a rented trailer. Their most valuable assets are two Chevy pickups. Since arriving from Mexico nearly 20 years ago, they’ve paid their credit card bills on time to earn an excellent credit rating, and they’re planning on taking out loans (as will Matthew).

“In life, you pay for everything,” Marcelino Rojano said, “and we’re going to do whatever it takes to get Matthew through college.”

Seventy miles west, in Merrick, college financial planner Barry Fox sees the same signs of angst among the middle class. At a recent workshop for Nassau County families, a father noted that the federal government forgives PLUS loans to parents if they die: “What happens,” he asked, “if I borrow the money for four years, then kill myself?”

The roots of financial aid go back to the GI Bill in 1944, which helped veterans go to college. Fox traces aid programs’ expansion to 1957, when the Soviet Union launched Sputnik and the United States decided to ramp up science education. Within a year, the government created programs for lower-income students. In the 1960s, President Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society initiative made even more loans and grants available to the poor. By the 1990s, the government had expanded aid to the middle class. What was a $190 million government program in 1963 grew to $94 billion by last year.

“Merit aid” started in the 1990s. Striving campuses such as Vanderbilt, Rice and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill are even offering full rides to entice the best and brightest. But such programs aren’t usually geared for would-be drama majors like Liana Rowe. Her parents also aren’t rich enough to pay cash or poor enough to get need-based scholarships.

Shrewd investors
The Rowes lived in a Bayside apartment until four years ago. They had invested their money in a $105,000 handyman’s special in Springs, then spent weekends fixing it up. They sold it for five times as much and bought a fixer-upper in Northport, where they liked the high school’s performing-arts curriculum.

Valerie teaches East Meadow middle school students about finances. She shows them how to balance a checkbook, pay rent and learn responsibility. She uses the same lessons at home: By studying at night and weekends, she earned a master’s degree, and now earns $88,000. She makes another $20,000 teaching in the summer. Randy is a retired sheet metal worker with a Teamster’s pension who sells handicrafts at fairs.

Walking around her house, which has a playroom, heated porch and a living room with a fireplace, Valerie said, “We’re all spoiled. We want what our parents didn’t have.”

With combined earnings of $140,000, Valerie and Randy figured they’d be well-to-do suburbanites. But they took out a home equity loan to make repairs, so their monthly mortgage is $3,700. By the time they pay the electricity, gas, insurance and taxes then tuck away something for emergencies, there’s little left over.

They furnished their house at tag sales, and any extra money goes for theater tickets for Liana, the aspiring actress, and science kits for their son Ian, certainly one of the few 8-year-olds who started this year by writing to NASA for a job.

Just when they think they’ve controlled expenses, something comes up. Recently, Liana needed $8,000 worth of braces not covered by insurance. Valerie gestured toward her son. “Look at that Jay Leno chin. We’re going to be paying $8,000 more for orthodontia.”

Liana, who has a 97 average, has applied to drama programs at the University of Hartford and other colleges where fees, room and board add up $40,000 a year. Valerie Rowe was quietly ecstatic last month when Liana declared that she loved Montclair State in New Jersey. For out-of-state students, it’s a relative bargain — $22,000 a year.

Ginny and Tom Lynch have a twin son and daughter who are seniors at Lynbrook High and a daughter who is a sophomore, and they have tried to do everything right when it comes to saving for college.

Still, they’re bracing for a financial jolt.

Here’s what they did: Tom, an accountant, signed up for New York’s 529 College Savings Program as soon as it became available nine years ago. He deposited money every pay period, to the maximum $10,000 a year allowed for a state tax deduction for a couple. He also put some money in mutual funds.

The Lynches always have assumed that they and the kids will take out loans. They’ve tried to economize wherever they could: When they wanted to remodel their kitchen, they did it themselves.

Tom went to college at St. John’s University while working a full-time job as a baggage handler and cook for TWA. The way he sees it, he sacrificed so that his children can take advantage of everything at college: sports, evening lectures, friends. The Lynch family spends a lot of time talking about education. Tom is a member of the Lynbrook school board and Ginny is the PTA president.

And here’s the jolt: While an older son went to Nassau Community College, their three remaining kids are interested in private colleges. So, the Lynches will be paying roughly $100,000 a year for the next two years, then $150,000 a year for a couple of years when their other daughter starts.

Caroline, known as Carly, is intrigued by Middlebury while Jason, who goes by Jay, favors Colorado College — two of the most expensive in the country. Neither offers much merit aid. By the time their youngest daughter is done, that means the Lynches will pay $600,000 for college over the next six years. They estimate they’ll still have a gap of as much as $350,000. They’ll close some of that with loans, and they expect their children to work part-time and to borrow money themselves.

Said Ginny Lynch: “We’re trying not to panic.”

David Braverman, a father of four in Setauket, spends a lot of time helping parents move from panicking to planning.

He came across all kinds of little-known grants while researching “The Standard & Poor’s Guide to Saving and Investing for College.” Southern and Midwestern colleges, looking for geographic diversity, are using merit aid to land Long Island’s top students. The same is true of single-sex colleges, which worry about being passed over by academic stars. Smith College in Massachusetts gave his daughter Stacy a $14,000-per-year scholarship based on her top grades and test scores at Ward Melville High School.

Braverman keeps track of college endowments to see which schools can afford to pay for talent. Fifty-four American colleges have endowments of more than $1 billion. One of those is Rice, in Houston. When Braverman’s second daughter, Jennifer, showed interest in Rice, she was wooed with a $12,000 per-year scholarship because she was a semifinalist in the Intel science contest.

Financial woes
Not everyone is lucky enough to be courted by an admissions office. After graduating from Oyster Bay High last spring, Ceallaigh Watts went to the University of North Carolina at Charlotte to become a teacher. Watts, 19, says she filled out the federal financial aid form incorrectly and ended up getting less aid than she qualified for. She added that her parents, who are deaf, have limited incomes, so the family can’t draw on vast savings. She left college last month because she couldn’t afford the $20,000 tuition and thousands more for food and books.

She’s back in Oyster Bay, working two jobs waiting tables and working in an ice cream shop while getting ready to study at Nassau Community College this semester. “I’m doing my best to go back to Charlotte in the fall,” she said.

In Northport, the Rowes know they have a fallback: Liana could live at home and go to Stony Brook or another local college like her mother did. Still, they will take loans and refinance the house if Liana gets into her dream college. Valerie will double her teaching load this summer to earn extra money. Liana’s prepared to take out loans.

“I want Liana to have a sense of autonomy,” Valerie said. “Besides, when no one is doing her laundry, I want her to realize how good we are to her.”

In nine years, their son heads to college. The Rowes don’t want to be burdened with more debt, so they have settled on a better plan. They’re going to sell the house.

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