Paying the price of higher education
By Eileen Alt Powell
By Eileen Alt Powell
NEW YORK — It's panic time in many American homes as parents struggle to evaluate the financial aid packages for their soon-to-be college freshmen children — and figure out what to do if they don't get enough.
This rite of spring is triggered when colleges and universities begin mailing financial aid award letters, which give incoming students a breakdown of the amount of grants, scholarships, work-study jobs and federal loans they can expect.
Comparing the various offers — and appealing for reviews from campus aid offices — can be daunting, as is figuring out how to finance the rest. But most families work things out, experts say.
"What you'll find is that it's the moment of truth," said Martha Holler, a spokeswoman for Sallie Mae, an educational lender based in Reston, Va. "You made it through the admissions process, and your child was accepted. Now you and your child are going to have to figure out how to pay for it."
Allan Turgeon of Auburn, Maine, has dealt with financial aid award letters over the past several years as his sons, 21-year-old Tyler and 19-year-old Ryan, have been making their way through Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine.
He said Tyler, a junior, and Ryan, a sophomore, both qualified for some grants as well as work-study opportunities.
"The financial aid is essential to their attending the school," their father said.
But Turgeon, a property manager for a development company, said the family also anticipated having to pay a share of tuition, fee and room-and-board costs and tried to divide it in a way that was fair to everyone. Each son, he said, "borrows one-third of what he needs" beyond the college's financial aid. Turgeon then pays a third in cash and borrows the remaining third.
The family has found that the federal loan programs — which include Perkins and Stafford loans for students as well as Parent Loans for Undergraduate Students, or PLUS loans, for parents — have been the most economical way to borrow. But it's still not easy.
"We're on a bare-bones budget," Turgeon said. "We really have to watch how we spend."
Steve Joyce, director of student aid at Bowdoin, which will admit 480 new freshmen this fall, said parents need to verify what's included in colleges' projected costs to ensure they have comparable figures. Some institutions, for example, may include book expenses and activity fees, while others may not.
In addition, he said, families also should be clear on whether some components of the aid offer are for one year only or will be renewed in coming years.
Joyce also urged parents and prospective students to call college and university financial aid officers for advice.
"Call the school and say, 'I really want to come but I don't have the $15,000 you think I can afford to pay,' " Joyce said. "That starts a dialogue ... that could lead to a review of the calculations."
He said aid officers can help families develop payment strategies, too.
"It doesn't hurt to ask, 'If you were in my position, how would you do this?' " Joyce said. "Financial aid people spend a lot of time helping students and parents."
Joyce recommends three Web sites where families can look for scholarships and other financial aid information: www.finaid.org, www.collegeboard.com and www.fastweb.org. And Sallie Mae maintains the site www.collegeanswer.com that has a calculator families can use to compare college aid packages.