- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 14, 2002

Brandon Belote has a 3.5 grade-point average. He takes Advanced Placement classes, is a competitive swimmer and is active in the theater department at James Madison High School in Vienna.

Brandon, a senior, has the kind of high school resume that has given him the choice of many colleges. He applied to a few state schools, Including Virginia Tech and the College of William and Mary, and a couple of private schools, including Lafayette College, Dickinson College and Loyola of Maryland.

"I told Brandon to look without regard to price, then we will narrow them down," says Brandon's mother, Brenda. "I told him, 'You don't worry about the money. Get the best education you can get.'"

Mrs. Belote, a special-education teacher, is not offering advice like that because she and her husband, Bill, a government consultant, are wealthy. The Belotes are typical of many Washington-area families: Even with two incomes and money in several college savings accounts, they find the sticker shock of the upcoming college years is daunting.

"Dickinson costs $35,000 a year," Mrs. Belote says, emphasizing each syllable of that number. "We started saving the week he was born, but paying that amount in full each year would be a stretch. We would be panicked if we hadn't saved, but you have to sacrifice and do it. You have to have a college education to compete."

In the end, Brandon and his parents chose the University of Southern Mississippi, which has a theatrical design and production and electrical engineering technology program that interests Brandon.

The school has awarded Brandon an $8,800 university leadership scholarship for his four years there, and he is hoping also to get a $9,000 Air Force ROTC scholarship. Because he has good grades and Brenda Belote is an alumna, the university will waive part of the $4,500 annual out-of-state tuition.

"I visited Southern Mississippi, and I liked the fact it was not too big and not too small," Brandon says. "Some schools I looked at were like going to high school and Virginia Tech is just a giant school."

Planning early and investigating scholarship possibilities are the kinds of things parents should be doing to ensure that the money will be there for college, says Ric Edelman, a McLean financial planner.

"Years ago, college was a privilege," Mr. Edelman says. "Now it is an obligation in order to get a job."

With that in mind, parents also should remember that the average public university costs about $9,000 a year for tuition, room, board and fees. The average private university averages $23,668 annually. With an average increase of about 5 percent a year, those bills are expected to be $49,204 (private) and $18,489 (public) by 2016.

Mr. Edelman's predictions are even more dire. He says the four-year bill for a public school will be $180,000 and that a private school will cost more than $300,000 when a child born in 2002 is ready to enroll.

"But remember that a majority of students do not pay full price," he says, "but so what if they knock a $40,000 bill down to $20,000? That makes it go from totally impossible to virtually impossible."

How to pay

If you have children and would like them to go to college one day, you should keep some simple rules in mind, Mr. Edelman says:

• Time is money. If you wait until your child is in high school before you start saving, you will barely be able to afford a semester of college. So save now and save whatever you can. Putting away $100 a month is better than doing nothing.

• Don't assume your child will be brilliant enough or athletically gifted enough to receive a scholarship. Your child may be the fastest runner in the third grade but may be left behind when it comes to high school sports.

"Scholarships are fabulous if you qualify," Mr. Edelman says, "but a vast majority of students will not qualify."

However, many students even those in the middle class will qualify for need-based financial aid, says Kalman A. Chany, a New York financial aid consultant and author of the book "Paying for College Without Going Broke."

"Colleges have more than $70 billion in aid available," he says. "College can be like airline flights, where everyone is paying a different price. Even at the most exclusive, expensive schools, most students are not paying full price. Assuming you will not qualify is a mistake."

Many people, especially those with good jobs who own their own homes, assume they won't qualify because they really don't know how financial aid works, Mr. Chany says. Applying for financial aid can mean mastering complex formulas and complicated work sheets, but it is worth the time required, he says.

"A few years before college is a good time to try and get a preliminary analysis of what your eligibility is," Mr. Chany says.

Heather Keddie, associate director of admissions at the University of Southern California, a private university where tuition, room and board cost about $37,000 a year, says not applying can cost thousands of dollars.

"There is no way to qualify unless you apply," Ms. Keddie says. "It is not always about income, but about debts you have and expenses and other children in school. Some people see the price tag and assume that is what the school is going to cost.

"The other assumption is that a public school is going to be less expensive," she says. "It might be worth it to look at how long it takes the average graduate to get through school. At some big schools, it takes five years. That will cost more money and result in lost income potential."

Dr. Peter Mendel, a family-practice physician in Prince William County, says he intends at least to fill out financial aid forms before his eldest son, Tom, heads to Duke University next fall.

"I'm not under an illusion that we are going to get it," says Dr. Mendel, who also attended Duke, "but I am going to file the paperwork, anyway. We have been saving for 12 years, but few people, unless you are strikingly rich, have enough money to cover everything."

How not to pay

There are worse mistakes than not saving anything, Mr. Edelman says. A common one is to interfere with your own retirement. When summing up assets, some people rely on the equity of their home or the balance of their 401(k) as the way to fund college.

"I have seen people take several hundred thousand dollars out of their homes," he says. "You can pull it off, but if you are in your 40s and you have two more kids, by the time you get to the last child, you have no equity in your home, and you are that much closer to retirement."

Mr. Chany agrees that borrowing against a 401(k) is dangerous, too.

"You can always borrow for college," he says. "You cannot borrow for retirement."

However, Mr. Edelman is also against borrowing large amounts for college.

"Student loans can be very dangerous," Mr. Edelman says. "You can end up saddling your child with the need to pay off massive debt, and that could end up dictating his or her life. I had one couple come to see me who were both in their late 20s and both law school graduates. They owed $170,000 in loans, so they were forced to become corporate attorneys so they could each make $125,000 a year. The money ended up dictating their career, and that is not the way it is supposed to be."

The bottom line

Mr. Edelman tells clients to think about the cost-benefit ratio when looking at colleges. For instance, if a student intends to be a teacher or social worker noble professions with limited income potential it might make sense to choose a less-expensive school rather than spend decades paying for that education.

In fact, opting for State U or even a community college for the first two years should be a money-saving option for everyone, he says.

"Parents have this misguided notion of the importance of the school the child attends," Mr. Edelman says. "An employer rarely cares where a student goes in the first place. It only matters where he graduates. He can go to an inexpensive state school for two years, then transfer. That can radically cut the cost of college."

Dr. Mendel disagrees. His son Tom, a senior at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in Annandale, looked at a number of Ivy League schools before deciding on Duke, where he plans to study biomedical engineering.

Attending Duke which costs about $36,000 annually will involve lifestyle changes and sacrifice, Dr. Mendel says. He believes it will pay off, though.

"Education is really important," he says. "So whatever way you can obtain it, you should get the best education you can get. For some, that means going to the most affordable school. Going to a well-known school gives you academic credentials that will open doors for you for the rest of your life. I told Tom if he had good enough credentials to get into one of these special schools, we would make it happen."

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