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O.C. Families Get Education in College Cost

May 04, 1997|RANDAL C. ARCHIBOLD | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The story of how the eldest son in the Tan family of Irvine will fulfill a dream to attend Harvard could begin several years ago, with the boy first entering school and his persistent parents urging him to study hard, get good grades and shoot for the Ivy League.

That surely is part of it, for Michael Tan now has a 4.3 grade-point average, scored 1520 on his SAT and developed an activist spirit that led him to serve on the statewide student council, Amnesty International and the city school board as a student representative.

But behind the decision to send Michael, 18, to the most prestigious school in the country lies another tale, one of a soul-searching family, with bright children, reeling from the sticker shock of higher education and wondering if they should sell the house for a smaller one, postpone uninsured medical treatments, take on additional jobs and incur more debt than they feel they can handle.

Every year, Orange County sends a bumper crop of star students to the Ivy League and other elite schools with an unbreakable mystique and often unbearable price tag to go with it.

And every year, around this time when students have just sent their final notices to enroll in the fall, families like the Tans in the middle to upper-middle income brackets begin to come to grips with the skyrocketing costs of higher education--especially for private schools, where tuition has jumped more than 60% in the last 10 years.

This year it will cost $32,130 to send Michael, a senior at Irvine High, to Harvard. Over four years, the cost for tuition, room and board and other expenses will exceed $128,000, not accounting for inflation.

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On paper, the Tans seem well-to-do. Domingo Tan, a chemical engineer, earns more than $70,000 a year; Paz Tan is now a homemaker, having left a pharmacy career several years ago to take care of their three children. They have lived in Irvine for three years, in a two-story house assessed at $300,000, and have enjoyed a comfortable life here, with annual family trips, weekend outings and the benefits of nearby schools that are among the most highly regarded in the state.

But in recent months, as they reviewed mortgage payments, impending uninsured medical expenses and debts from an unsuccessful business and other expenses, it became clear that perhaps even their affluence wasn't enough for Harvard.

They must pay $17,600 of the first-year expenses, with Harvard's strictly need-based financial aid--it offers no merit or athletic scholarships--and outside scholarships, government Stafford and Perkins loans picking up the rest. Over four years, the family contribution will surpass $80,000, if they negotiate similar financial aid arrangements every year.

This year it took three rounds of negotiations--led by Paz Tan and her son--before Harvard lowered the family's obligation from its initial $22,802. In the end, Michael says, "we basically just begged."

Like many families, they didn't budget adequately for college costs--they didn't start investing in college savings until Michael entered high school--especially for a school like Harvard or the other private institutions to which he was accepted: Yale, Swarthmore, Amherst and Cornell.

The Tans initially thought outside scholarships would cushion the blow, but Harvard, like many institutions, counts a large portion of that money as earnings and thus reduces the level of its financial aid.

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Savings, and a much tighter family budget, will let them get by for now, Paz Tan says. Already the annual family trip--China was last year's; Vancouver was the destination this year--has been canceled. When Michael was invited to attend President Clinton's volunteerism summit in Philadelphia last weekend, he had to scramble to find a foundation to pay his way.

But looking to the future, the Tans must do more.

Second son Mark, already eyeing the Ivy League, heads for college in two years, at a time when Michael will have two more years left at Harvard. The Tans know they must consider taking on more debt through bank loans, or perhaps selling the house.

"We might do that if it gets real bad," Paz Tan said, more with resignation than despair.

Both Paz and her husband have entertained the idea of setting up an unspecified business, perhaps even in their native Philippines where they could collaborate with relatives.

As part of Harvard's aid, Michael will take a university job, and may take another outside in the Boston area, even though it may jeopardize his shot at graduating in three years instead of four.

"Unfortunately with my brother entering college in two years, we're really not going to have the time to cash in on last-minute investments, round up some new scholarships, or bring any substantial extra income to the family," Michael says.

"What's even more pathetic is that when my baby brother hits college in nine years, my family's life savings will have been exhausted, and me and my brother [Mark] will have to fund his post-secondary education."

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