Despite financial aid, savings and scholarships, students find the road to college more expensive than expected.

By Olivia Miltner, ’13

Grasped in Hannah Dorfman’s hands was a white envelope, and inside, there was a life-changing announcement: a potential college acceptance letter from from her dream school, Massachusetts’s Tufts University. This single piece of paper could determine where she would spend the next four years of her life, and ultimately, the path her future would take. To the 2011 UAHS alum, Tufts was ideal. It had everything she wanted in a college, from good political science and music programs to excellence in academics.

“I went to visit and I fell in love with it,” Dorfman said. “I literally got on campus and was like, ‘Yeah, I’m going here.’”

After skimming the first few lines of the letter, Dorfman’s eyes lit up and she could not help but cheer. She was accepted.

Preparing for college

Dorfman’s acceptance to her first choice college was a feat her entire family celebrated; however, they quickly realized the financial pressures they now faced.

“I got a fair amount of money [from Tufts], but we are still paying a lot,” Dorfman said. “I talked to my mom and dad about [whether or not] we could make it work, because I knew it was a huge investment. But they were willing to make the financial commitment.”

Dorfman is not the only UA student struggling to meet the financial requirements of higher education. College counselor Mark Davis has noticed a rise in the number of UAHS graduates planning on going directly into the workforce.

“The graduating class of 2007 had 90 percent of its members attending a four-year college and eight percent attending a two-year college, leaving two percent of the class doing something other than college,” he said. “Conversely, the graduating class of 2010 had 81 percent attending a four-year college and 12 percent attending a two-year college, leaving seven percent of the class doing something other than college.”

In order to secure an edge over other applicants, Dorfman bolstered her applicaation not only with a rigorous academic course load, but with a plethora of extracurricular activities as well. In addition to playing both lacrosse and volleyball, she joined the Ultimate Frisbee team, played cello in two UAHS orchestras, was an IB diploma candidate and served as president of the German Club.

And while she prepared herself in these facets of college acceptance, she greatly underestimated the impact that price would have on her college situation.

“[The overall cost of college] is a huge factor,” she said. “My family didn’t started saving early for my college. It was a big mistake to not prepare ourselves earlier.”

A rising trend

Senior Zoe Ribar has also begun considering how finances will affect her path to college. As she started doing research on the cost of attendance, she admits she was taken by surprise.

“I knew the college prices would be high, but I never knew how immense the out-of-state costs would be,” Ribar said. “Often the prices can be double the cost for out-of-state tuition than-in-state, a factor that certainly is an incentive to stay in-state.”

Of the various schools Ribar has considered, the average cost of tuition, room and board is $35,000. Five years ago, these prices would have been considerably lower.

According to Davis, today’s high cost of post-secondary school is a product of five years worth of accumulation. Schools have had to raise their cost of attendance and give smaller scholarships due, in large part, to the decrease in donations from corporations, alumni and other organizations and individuals that make up endowment funding for colleges. Additionally, Davis noted that the budgets of many public universities have been greatly reduced due to a loss of financial support from the state government.

“Since 2005, the average increase in tuition, room and board, fees and books has been between five and 12 percent per year,” Davis said.

Colleges with endowments of $1 billion or more lost about 20 percent of their total endowment amount between the 2008 and 2009 school year, according to the National Association of College and University Business Officers and Commonfund Institute, an organization that advocates for teachers and administrators associated with higher education. In an article by Justin Pope, an Associated Press writer who specializes in education, colleges such as MIT and Stanford admitted that the 2008 market crash forced them to confront the largest budget cuts in memory.

The FAFSA is a key document when applying for financial aid. It is the main component when colleges decide how much assistance students need. Photo illustration by Audrey Hall

So what can students do to counter these rising obstacles? According to the College Board, the majority of students use financial aid to help pay for the cost of college; however, Davis explained that financial aid can prove difficult to obtain.

“If [colleges] have millions in donations each year from alumni and they have an endowment fund of $100 million, they will be more likely to give sizable [scholarships] compared to a college that has low donations and an endowment of only a few million dollars,” Davis said.

For example, one can compare George Washington University, a school Dorfman was seriously considering, to a school like Harvard University. George Washington’s endowment, although still over $1 billion, pales in comparison to Harvard’s $27 billion in 2010, as noted by the colleges’ websites. The difference in these endowments directly affects the amount of available scholarship money, so that, according to the 2011 US News and World Report, George Washington University’s average need-based scholarship or grant award is $27,600, while Harvard’s is $37,000. To put that into perspective, the total amount of tuition, room and board—minus the average amount of need-based grants and/or scholarships—of GWU is over $27,000 and Harvard’s is only $12,000.

“George Washington [University] is one of the most expensive universities in the country, so I needed a really good financial aid package from them, and I didn’t get it,” Dorfman said.

According to Dorfman, financial aid works best for those who exist on the far ends of the economic spectrum. However, financial aid for middle class families, may not be as helpful.

“Many [upper-middle class families] are too affluent to qualify for significant financial aid but not wealthy enough to pay out-of-pocket,” according to an article by Jane Kim for the Wall Street Journal.

Dorfman’s family experienced this firsthand.

“My financial aid adviser at Tufts said that the formula to determine financial aid isn’t designed for middle class families,” Dorfman said. “It works well for richer families who can afford college and lower class families who can’t.”

Scholarships and savings plans

Although financial aid may sometimes be difficult to receive, scholarships can be extremely beneficial and offer immense opportunity for people who might not be as financially privileged. For example, Ribar explained that potential scholarships drive her to succeed in school.

“Scholarship opportunities are so important to college applicants. They motivate us to do well in school and, in the long run, can save [us] thousands of dollars,” Ribar said. “With increasing college tuition, it could be a potential sports scholarship that allows you to afford or attend a school.”

Not only do potential scholarships push students to work hard in school, but by working with the school and financial aid officers, scholarships can also be a major asset in helping families afford college.

Dorfman was able to work with her Tufts’ financial adviser to assemble a package to help her pay for school.

“I talked to the financial aid people at Tufts and got better a package,” Dorfman said. “I’ll probably be graduating with $30,000 to $40,000 in loans. The average student graduates with $18,000.”

Along with a work-study program and a monthly payment plan, Dorfman is receiving $28,000 in scholarships per year, an amount that will help her family financially.

Four-year alternatives

If a student cannot afford a standard four-year college, Davis said three alternatives can be considered:

1. Work for a few years and save enough to attend a community college and eventually a four-year college in the state public system;

2. Go to a two-year community college part-time and work as many hours as possible to support continuing in college and doing well;

3. Attend a two-year college to keep the costs down and take out loans.

Davis also said that it is important for students to utilize a college’s financial aid recourses to maximize the benifits.

“In the last two situations the student needs to work closely with the Office of Financial Aid to find possible grants or scholarships to help pay for college,” Davis said. “In each of these cases if the student is able to live at home to reduce expenses, this would be important as well.”

Although the status of college finances may seem daunting, there is hope for students who are struggling to pay for higher education.

“[Students should] try not to worry too much until they are faced with the financial aid package offered to them at each college they apply,” Davis said. “Begin checking out all the possible scholarship options available through colleges that they plan to apply to, as well as looking into possible scholarships available through scholarship search engines.”

Davis also recommends working part-time during the school year or finding a full-time job in the summer in order to save as much money as possible for college.

Planning ahead

When it comes to financial aid, planning ahead is also essential. According to Russ Golowin, a college financial adviser, families of students enrolling in college should begin research on their financial aid eligibility years in advance.

“Students and parents should take a look at their financial picture before senior year rolls around. Many financial strategies that can increase eligibility for financial aid should be implemented by January of the student’s junior year or before,” Golowin said. “Families need to know how student and parent income affects the aid awards, as well as what the most advantageous ways of holding savings are before time begins to run out.”

Golowin added that the common conception that a family has to have a low-income to receive financial aid is not necessarily true. Even families who make upwards of $100,000 a year can obtain healthy financial aid packages if they plan ahead and understand how packages are computed, he said.

And while money may be a large factor, there are other components to consider when trying to find the right fit. According to Ribar, students should consider how a certain college fits with their educational, extracurricular and social interests before analyzing the price.

“So many variables come into picking colleges, and I think that an easy way to rule out some could be the price. Your final decision, however, should not come from what college is the cheapest, but from your belief on where you fit best, as well as where you can learn best,” Ribar said. “We are all searching for the college experience, a place where we can meet new people and figure out who we are as an individual and where we might fit in.”