What’s the real cost of a college education?

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Every college student learns one lesson quickly: College is expensive.

According to a report by the College Board released last year, the average annual cost at a four-year public college was $11,354 and a year at a private college was $27,516. And it certainly isn’t any cheaper this year.

Scholarships and grants don’t make all the bills go away, either. Even after the average $3,300 in scholarships, a student at that four-year public school is looking at an annual tab of $8,054.

And after his private-school cousin gets her average of $9,400 in scholarships, she’s still got $18,116 to shoulder.

“Students and parents are borrowing a significant amount of money,” says Sandy Baum, senior policy analyst with the College Board.

In addition to federal education loans such as Stafford and PLUS, they are also turning to home equity loans and private lenders.

Karlyn Wegmann is one of those parents. Her oldest child entered a private college last fall but didn’t qualify for any financial aid. “We were surprised because it’s expensive, $36,000 a year,” she says. “But then they told us that if you make over $125,000, you’re not going to get anything.”

Wegmann is a florist and grad student herself, and her husband is a pediatrician. They’ve lived in the same house 13 years. “We don’t drive a big, fancy car and don’t have a home on the lake or a cabin,” she says. “I’ve never flown first-class and neither has my husband.”

While they paid the first year out of savings, for sophomore year they’re tapping the home equity. By the time their third child graduates, “there will be zero equity left in the house, it will have all been taken for tuition,” she says. “And we have a lot of friends who are doing the same thing.”

Students are getting loans, too. “Students are increasingly borrowing private loans through banks,” says Baum.

Randa Chappin graduated from American University this spring. She commuted to school and estimates the full tuition was $25,000 to $30,000 per year. Financial aid took care of “about 70 percent,” she says. For the rest, she did what a lot of students do: work. She combined jobs with work-study assignments and even took out one loan. “At one point I had three different jobs,” she says.

Chappin lucked out, she says, by getting a really good financial aid adviser. Four years of mentoring from the DC College Access Program, or DC-CAP, “really helped me through my journey.” Still, it took “a lot of persistence, a lot of determination.”

Money shouldn’t be a barrier
The real tragedy is that some low-income kids are passing on a college education simply because of the price.

“There is a portion of college-qualified, low-income graduates who are not going on to college or are delaying college because of the financial burden,” says Nicole Barry, deputy director for the Advisory Committee on Student Financial Assistance. Each year, 400,000 low- and moderate-income high school grads who are qualified for college won’t attend a four-year school within two years of graduating. Of those, about half won’t attend any college at all within those two years, according to a 2002 report by the committee.

Of 100 low-income eighth-graders, 16 will be fully qualified to attend a four-year college but financially unable to do so, according to 2005 statistics from the committee.

And the situation has been getting worse, Barry says.

“What we’re finding is that because of these financial burdens, students are making choices: going to a two-year college first, working excessive hours or delaying college,” Barry says. All of those choices make it more difficult for them to get that diploma.

One solution that shows promise: public-private partnerships that combine the resources of the federal and state governments along with private organizations to help low-income students. “The idea is really to have all the stakeholders come together,” she says.

A couple of examples are the Indiana 21st Century Scholars program, a state-government program to provide scholarships to low-income students, and the Washington State Achievers Program, established by a private foundation to offer mentoring and scholarships to low-income students.

“What’s unique is that they both are trying to get to the students early and provide them earlier assurances of adequate grant aid,” says Barry.

DC-CAP is privately funded and partners with the local school system and federal and local financial aid programs. With school-based advisers, it offers both college counseling and money.

“We get them prepped and help them pick and get into colleges,” says Argelia Rodriguez, the executive director. “We help them find scholarships and give them scholarships as well.”

The group gave out $2.6 million in scholarships last school year, she says. And it protects its investment. Counselors stay in touch with students throughout their academic career “to make sure they don’t drop out,” Rodriguez says.

So what could make it easier?
Everyone has a slightly different take on what in the system needs to be fixed. But many parents agree on one thing: What the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA, form sees as disposable income and what life allows as disposable income are two entirely different things. Parents enter their income and the cost of the school, and based on that, their expected family contribution is calculated.

“The big picture to me is that there is a real lack of awareness” of how much money it takes, says Wegmann. What she’d like to see on the student financial aid form is something more like a mortgage application that looks at a family’s total picture, not just the bottom-line income. Without something that looks at real life, “there’s just too much of a gap” between what you have and what you have to pay, she says.

“What was surprising to us is that we have a good income,” says Wegmann.

“To think, ‘Oh my God, we can’t afford for our kid to go to this school’ is kind of scary,” she says.

L.D. Ross has seen the situation from two sides. A father of twins who will be college seniors this fall, he is also the senior program manager at DC-CAP. He thinks the government’s cost-of-living calculations on the federal financial aid form “may need to be tweaked,” he says. “We simply see too many families who cannot afford to pay what the federal government says their expected family contribution is.”

He also wants to see parents encouraging any and all talents while their kids are in middle and high school and for families to be more diligent in terms of applying for those outside scholarships. “Whatever their particular skill is, try to find a college that might be looking for someone with that skill and may have some scholarship money,” Ross says.

And one thing many parents don’t know: “Any financial aid package is negotiable,” says Ross. “Try to talk to that financial aid officer and see if you can negotiate with him. The savvy parents, they know that. And the more your child has to offer,” he says, the stronger your bargaining position.

Chappin would like to see students get a little more personal attention when it comes to the financial aid questions and quandaries. “Having the information is not enough,” she says. “I hate to say you have to hold the hand of the next generation and walk them through the process. But a lot of times, it’s that simple.”

Barry suspects there are students who aren’t attending college because they don’t want to shoulder the student loan burden.

And Chappin can understand it. “Who wants to come out of college with $100,000 in student loan debt?”

While she’s happy the option is available, she’d like to see more work-study opportunities, perhaps even some that would trade college money for community service.

Says Chappin, “I’ll work for my education.”

Dana Dratch is a freelance writer based in Atlanta.

Written by
Dana Dratch
Personal Finance Writer
Dana Dratch is a personal finance and lifestyle writer who enjoys talking all things money and credit. With a degree in English and writing, she likes asking the questions everyone would ask if they could and sharing the answers — along with smart money management tips from the experts.