- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 4, 2005

Cheryl and Glen White were certain their son, Justin, would get into the college of his choice. After all, the 18-year-old, an A student, had earned perfect scores in mathematics and chemistry on his college entrance exams.

But their joy that he has been accepted to study engineering at Harvey Mudd College in Claremont, Calif., has been dampened by the realization that they have to cover most of the $45,000 it’s going to cost each year for tuition, fees and room and board.

“It’s going to be difficult,” Cheryl White said. “But we have only one chance to give our kids the best shot at life, so we’ll find a way to pay for it.”

Like thousands of parents across the country, the Whites are grappling with sticker shock as they sort through acceptance letters from colleges and universities.

According to the nonprofit College Board, families now pay an average of $11,350 per year for tuition, fees and room and board for in-state students at public, four-year colleges and universities; the costs for private colleges and universities average more than $27,500 per year.

Most families haven’t saved that kind of money, so experts say it’s important they seek as much funding as they can through grants and scholarships, then look at government-backed loans and private educational loans — even home equity loans — to cover costs.

The Whites, who live in San Diego, are looking at a combination of funding sources.

Justin has scholarships, including one from the college, and plans to take out a federal Stafford loan of $2,625. Cheryl White, who is a teacher, and her husband, a retired Navy officer who works as a defense contractor, will tap their savings and are looking into a PLUS loan, the acronym for the federally sponsored Parent Loans for Undergraduate Students.

“My son has promised to help pay back some of the loans after he graduates,” Cheryl White said. That will help because Justin’s younger brother, Joel, a high school sophomore, also hopes to go to college, she said.

Martha Holler, a spokeswoman for Sallie Mae, an educational lender based in Reston, said the first thing families should do is carefully compare the financial-aid offers they receive.

“Be sure to read the fine print,” she said. “One college might offer a $1,000 grant, another $500 but make it renewable based on grade point average.”

Then, she said, families should make sure they respond by the colleges’ deadlines, or they could be disqualified for aid.

Miss Holler said families who need to borrow money “should begin the process now” so the funds are available when needed in the fall. Among the options:

• Guaranteed student loans. Backed by the federal government, there are two types. Stafford loans are taken out by students, while PLUS loans are for their parents. Both carry low interest rates and can be paid back over 10 years. In some cases, the interest may be tax-deductible.

• Private loans, which may carry a higher rate of interest than the PLUS loans but offer more flexible repayment options.

• Tuition payment plans, which some colleges offer so families can make payments in installments through the year.

James A. Boyle, president of College Parents of America, a parental support network headquartered in Arlington, said many parents are surprised when they find out how much they are expected to contribute to their children’s educational costs.

On the other hand, there is aid money available at most schools but “unless you ask for it, you’re not going to get it.” That means it’s necessary for parents or prospective students to stay in touch with a college’s financial aid office.

Mr. Boyle also thinks parents should have a long talk with their children — sooner rather than later — about who is going to pay for what.

College graduates likely will have the earning power to pay back student loans, he said. Their parents, meanwhile, probably have other demands on their money, including funding the educational needs of other children and saving for their own retirement.

College Parents of America offers a guidebook called “Crunch Time: Solving the College Acceptance Dilemma.” It’s available for $4 at the group’s Web site, www.collegeparents.org, or for $5 by calling 888/761-6702.

ASSOCIATED PRESS

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