SAMOHI — When it came time to pick an institution of higher learning, Senior Leah Robinson had a hard time narrowing down her choices. It was either going to be Oberlin College or Northwestern University, and the clock was ticking.

While she felt her options would be better and more numerous at Northwestern in Illinois, she had been offered a scholarship from Oberlin for $15,000 a year, money that would surely be needed given the cost of continuing one’s education.

Robinson’s father encouraged her to consider Oberlin’s offer. Her mother, on the other hand, wanted her daughter to disregard finances completely and focus only on the schools themselves.

“I knew it was important to choose a school that I really felt was a fit, but when it’s a choice between graduating $20,000 in debt or saving the money I will make in college for graduate school or traveling, the scholarship offers really make you think twice about which school to choose,” Robinson said.

Oberlin’s Web site estimates the total cost for attending to be over $50,000 per year, approximately the same as Northwestern, according to collegeboard.com. That comes to a total of $200,000 for four years. At such a cost, any scholarship would seem welcome.

In the end, Robinson opted for Northwestern, though she has since switched to Middlebury College after finding out she was no longer on the waiting list.

“My parents always said giving me a college education was the greatest gift they could give me,” she said. “They didn’t want money to be an issue because they have worked for 25 years to be able to send my sister and me to the schools of our dreams. They made a deal with both of us that we each had to pay $5,000 a year and they would come up with the rest.”

Other students, however, are not sure they can afford the same luxury. With many families struggling to make ends meet during the economic downturn, coupled with colleges raising tuition fees to cope with dips in state funding and returns on investment portfolios, students are having to reconsider where they are going to get their college degrees, with some option for more affordable options, such as junior college or state schools.

“My school choices are extremely limited,” Samohi junior Sam Speiser said.

Since her college fund was heavily tied to the stock market, Speiser lost some of her purchasing power, forcing her to come to terms with reality when it came to selecting a college.

“Now with our financial crisis and colleges lowering acceptance rates and raising their prices … we had a lot of money in stock and when the stock market crashed that ended up really affecting us,” Speiser said.

Her first two choices are both private, four-year universities: University of Southern California and New York University. Figuring out how to pay for her top choice, or any college, has been stressful.

“My goal is to send out 30 scholarships over the summer and fall. Even schools like USC and NYU — I don’t even really consider them schools I can go to,” Speiser said. “There’s no way I will ever be able to pay for that.”

Speiser realizes attending a junior college may be her best bet, and considers even attending a UC to be a stretch.

Samohi college counselor Frank Gatell has noticed more juniors and seniors are worried about the financial cost of continuing their education. Instead of worrying about what school’s offer the best programs in the major of their choice, students are becoming more focused on how they and their families will pay for it.

“With the cost of higher education going up, [affording college] has become a natural concern,” Gatell said.

“A California State university tuition alone is roughly $8,000 a year. Add room and board and now you are doubling that amount,” Gatell added. “A University of California school is just under $10,000 in tuition alone, double that with room and board also. USC and Stanford cost roughly $50,000 a year with everything included.”

Gatell noted that the number of applications for financial aid has not changed considerably from past years, though he strongly encourages all students to apply for the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA).

“Students and parents can also look at loans, but in today’s economic environment it is not an easy solution,” Gatell said. “First, there is not a lot of credit out there as in the past. What once had 20 lenders is now down to six or seven. A student can get a loan but will need a co-signer to try and get a lower interest rate.”

A number of lenders participating in the Federal Family Education Loan Program (FFELP) have exited the market due to increased participation costs and poor market conditions. Borrower benefits and incentives such as reduced interest rates, fee waivers, rebates and default fee payments on behalf of borrowers are not as they once were.

In general the cost of borrowing is greater as compared to prior years. Borrowers considered high credit risks may be required to obtain credit worthy cosigners, pay higher interest rates or face loan denials as the market tightens.

Despite financial issues, many students are not willing to compromise their top college choices in order to lower costs.

“Somehow the panic hasn’t set in yet, and my parents have instilled in me an irrational faith that when it comes to education everything will magically work itself out,” Samohi junior Salonee Bhaman said. “While I would probably be willing to assume a lot of debt for my first choice, I would definitely give a school like Berkeley priority because of its cost and comparable academics.”

Bhaman’s first choices consist mostly of private, four-year universities, and she said that nothing financially-related would cause her to budge on her top choice if accepted.

“Looking at the current economic situation, we are seeing some students that have offers to attend out-of-state universities but instead decide to stay in-state which will help cut costs for them,” Gatell said. “A student that attends an out-of-state university will pay more than a student who is a resident of the state.”

Many students also decide to attend junior colleges as an alternative to pricey universities. Santa Monica College has seen a spike in enrollment, much of which has to do with UCs cutting down on the number of students admitted, along with the economic downturn which has forced some people who are unemployed to head back to school to pick up new skills to make them more marketable.

“When the economy is down, our enrollment goes up,” said Bruce Smith, a spokesman for SMC. “It makes sense because a lot of people are getting laid off or they want re-training.”

However, SMC is likely to be severely affected by state budget cuts, with three fourths of its funding coming from the state.

“We’re facing a difficult challenge with an increasing number of students, yet our funding could really be devastated,” Smith said.

To make matters worse, colleges, both public and private, have continued to raise their costs each year.

USC’s tuition alone, not including room and board, is $37,096, according to cnnmoney.com. UCLA is estimated to cost $20,608. Brown University in Rhode Island costs about $36,928 for tuition. In comparison, SMC offers courses for $20 a unit for California residents. Smith said a full course load is usually 12 units.

If costs continue to rise, Gatell fears some of his students will be left behind.

“My concern is that with the increasing costs of higher education, the college option will become a division into those who have and those who do not.”

 

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