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Rising Costs, Declining Aid? : Financing a College Education

November 28, 1986|BETTY CUNIBERTI | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — In the old days, if you made a good living you could send your children to college.

For such people it was a comfortable American axiom. But many families earning as much as $60,000 a year are now caught by surprise when it comes time to send junior to college.

They can't afford it.

Not Saved Enough

They have not saved enough; they cannot come up with the extra $4,000 to $10,000 a year, and the whole idea of having to borrow money and pursue grants strikes some middle-class parents as groveling for handouts, something they feel too successful to do.

Then comes the second half of the one-two punch. Because it's more difficult for middle-income families to qualify for need-based aid than it is for low-income parents, they have to hunt even harder for financial help.

"Nobody really likes to ask for help. There's a stigma attached to it," said Lawrence Dreyer, director of financial aid at UCLA. "They don't like to come in and talk about it. They don't like you to know they don't have enough money to pay."

Dorothy Sexton, director of financial aid at California State University at Long Beach, said she sees a great deal of surprise experienced by middle-income parents.

"Most of us feel that when we made it to the middle-income bracket we were going to be able to take care of all our family's needs," said Sexton. "Then we realize that education is just more expensive than we anticipated." Sexton said she has had some parents tell her they decided against sending their children to college because of the financial difficulty.

Misconceptions abound, according to college financial experts. Despite what seems to be endless publicity about the rising costs of college tuition, many parents believe they don't need to think about it until the situation is about to present itself, or that the big numbers are only coming out of fancy private schools.

Many Forms of Aid

Then there are those who feel just the opposite, that no matter what they do, there will never be a way they can send their children to any college because it is so expensive. (The American Council on Education estimates that students entering college in the fall of 1988 will pay an average total cost of $6,175 at a public school or $12,511 at a private one.) Many parents who think nothing of financing houses, cars, vacations and credit card debt feel embarrassed about borrowing for college, and many parents in all financial brackets know little about the many different forms of aid available.

Because of widespread confusion like this, an educational foundation has produced a video for parents and their junior high children, explaining in a simple way what they should expect and how to prepare for it.

The 20-minute video, "Paving the Way," is being made available on a rental or purchase basis to all 32,000 local chapters of the PTA, and to anyone else.

Produced by the Teagle Foundation for the National Institute of Independent Colleges and Universities, the film drives home two main points:

- Save money.

- Regardless of your income, if you need financial assistance, apply for it. There are many forms of aid.

Controversy rages at the highest levels of government and education regarding the skyrocketing costs of college and the accompanying decline in federal aid. According to a report prepared by the American Assn. of State Colleges and Universities, the purchasing power of federal student aid has declined 25% since 1980.

Reagan Administration officials have contended that colleges are raising their costs too rapidly, based on the notion that government will foot the bill.

"We have seen the growth of college costs to be way beyond the rate of inflation," Secretary of Education William Bennett said on the MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour. "The last five years, college costs have increased 85% higher than the rate of inflation."

The Same Contribution

Americans who believe college is at least worth a try wonder primarily about putting together the money. In the video presentation, the independent colleges seemed most concerned about parents who would like to send their children to private schools but assume they cannot afford it. The film contends that the family's financial contribution need not be larger at a private institution than at a state-funded one.

"The family contribution remains the same," said John Phillips, past president of the institute of independent schools and chairman of the video project's steering committee. "The difference can be covered by various forms of financial aid."

The film and an accompanying workbook, which were unveiled at a press conference here, were produced after the institute commissioned a Roper poll in 1984, which reflected parents' misguided notions and actions in connection with college. Among the findings:

- About 77% of parents plan to send their children to college.

- Nearly all the parents are saving money, but only 51% name education as a reason for saving.

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