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Paying For College: The Great Tuition Crunch

“List price” can be shocking.

But there are ways to beat it.

Andy Newman and Pete Sheehan, This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it and

This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it

“Every year, we always see families that are facing the paying for college dilemma,” notes Paul Weber, guidance chairperson for the Massapequa schools.

“There are always students who apply and are accepted to a great college that they have dreamed of attending,” said Weber. Yet once they hear from the financial aid office and see how much assistance they will get, they might face $30,000 to $40,000 a year in college payments.

“They can’t afford that,” Weber said.

If a college does not offer enough financial aid for a student,  Weber said, the family can consider a “Parent PLUS Loan,” to bridge the gap.

“Yet that could be  $20,000 to $30,000 a year,” Weber noted. So students and family need to do a cost-benefit analysis. “Is it worth it?”

His strongest advice, Weber said, is “start thinking about it early,” looking for ways to prepare for the dilemma, such as starting a tax-exempt college savings plan.

In addition, “one of the first things we tell our students at Massapequa is that we offer 30 courses in conjunction with area colleges where they can get college credit,” Weber explained.

Credit for those courses will cost less than a quarter of what they would pay at college. “We have students who have begun with 30 college credits from here.”

Another point is considering less costly alternatives that still offer quality education, such as community college or state universities.

“Or you might look at a private college where your grade point average is considerably higher than their average student.” Such a college might be willing to offer more in financial aid.

“Once a student enters senior year, that is the time to really focus,” Weber said. For example, he urges families to fill out the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) early.

“You can submit it as early as Jan. 1” and the sooner it is submitted, the better. “Once a college’s pot of financial aid is dried up, it is dried up.”

Still, students and families should not necessarily take no for an answer.

“I find that 99 percent of students never question the financial aid package that they are offered,” Weber said. Yet, he has found that in many cases, if a student informs a college that he or she needs more assistance to attend, the college will offer more.

Students and families can also explore other avenues for aid, such as scholarships. “Keep your ears open. Here in Massapequa there are 100 different family and community organizations that offer scholarships to students in the community.” He advises students to stay in touch with their high school guidance department.

In addition, students can look for assistance beyond their community or the college itself. “There is a lot of information on the Internet and there is a guide as big as phone book with scholarships. Now 95 percent of it will not help you but there might be something there for you. You have to be willing to do the homework.”

As college tuitions soar to unprecedented levels, parents, students, guidance counselors and others are increasingly challenged to find ways to pay what for many is an essential stepping-stone in life: an education beyond high school that will lead to a solid career and a cherished spot in America’s middle-class.

This is the front-and-center question facing the families of most graduating high school seniors at this time of the year. Colleges are presently announcing awards. A handful of families will be happy with the amount of aid that will be granted. Most will not. But it doesn’t have to be that way, according to Plainview financial aid consultant Andy Lockwood.  

“The first thing that parents need to understand is that colleges will negotiate,“ said Lockwood. “Most parents don’t know this. Most people just accept what they get. They don’t have to. There is room to either negotiate, or the word that colleges prefer is, ‘appeal.’ I think some of the financial officers think of themselves as like they’re on the Supreme Court. Any type of mercenary words like ‘negotiate’ is beneath them. That’s why they prefer that you ‘appeal’ to their judgment.”

While parents of current seniors might not be able to take advantage of all of Lockwood’s suggestions due to time constraints, parents of juniors can benefit.

Another suggestion by Lockwood is that students apply to what he refers to as “competing” schools. “Out of the over 2,700 four-year colleges in the United States, only about 100 or so accept 50 percent or less of their applicants,” he claimed. “There are a whole lot of schools out there that are struggling to fill seats. Even at the Ivy level there’s a lot of schools that will compete.  Cornell even suggests you appeal if you have another offer from an Ivy League school.”

To illustrate the effectiveness of his strategies, Lockwood cites the case of one of his most recent successes, a student who was accepted at USC in Los Angeles for the current year. Tuition, without any aid, would have been over $56,000, including room and board.  Last April 14th, the student received an initial award of $23,518.   A month later, guided by Lockwood, the university had increased the award by $30,022. The total award -- $53,540 – was for a single year.

“This was an atypical case, “ he said, “but we’ve had similar successes over the years. In her junior year when she was picking schools she came up with a few other colleges that compete with the University of Southern California. A lot of people would think that the other schools were in southern California, like UCLA and Pomona, and they do compete with each other. But there are East Coast schools that compete with USC. In her case, George Washington University (Washington, D.C.) gave her a much better offer.”

“So,” he continued,” we wound up writing a letter to the financial officer at USC in a very gracious tone telling the school that USC was her top choice and she was very excited to go there but that her family couldn’t afford USC. We told them we had other offers and attached them to the letter. The letter wasn’t outrageous or pushy. Financial officers get lots of those. The letter also said that she was 100 percent committed to going there. We requested that they reassess her situation and asked if they could meet or exceed her other offers. But we didn’t hear from the school for several weeks.”

The next step that Lockwood took was to ask the student to send that same package to the admissions office at USC.  The family heard from admissions almost immediately with the increased offer.

“Admissions, unlike the bean counters in those financial offices, are the ones who care,” said Lockwood in explaining why the college upped its award so substantially. “Admissions people care whether the people they admit actually show up and matriculate. And the reason for that is the ‘yield ratio’, the percentage of people who are admitted and actually attend --- that actually affects the school’s ranking in publications such as U.S. News & World Report and a school’s credit rating. You know when they go to borrow the money for their next $20 million athletic facility? Admissions, they’re the real stake holders.”