Krystal Rodriguez and her mother both cried with joy in April when she received her college acceptance letter from USC.
"I was shaking and I felt like throwing up, but in a good way," Krystal Rodriguez recalled.
But her parents said they were shocked during a subsequent campus visit to discover that neither the government nor the university would be offering substantial help with the $53,000 annual cost of attendance.
Although they were very proud of their daughter, the Cerritos couple told her that they didn't think they could swing the $200,000 tab for four years at the private university.
The Rodriguez family's discussion echoed a number of painful conversations this spring as recession-battered parents delivered some variation of the same message: Congratulations, you got in, but we can't afford it.
With the traditional enrollment deadline for many schools today, experts said it was too soon to assess the full scope of the recession's effects on college decision-making for the fall. But there were early signs that more families were seeking help with college costs this year, and weighing enrollment decisions especially carefully.
By April 25, nearly 20% more students than last year, a total of almost 8.5 million, had filed applications for federal student aid, officials said. Filling out the lengthy form, known as FAFSA, is the first step in establishing eligibility for loans or need-based scholarships.
Admissions officers at several public and private universities also said this week that more applicants than usual appeared to be delaying their college decisions until the last minute, perhaps taking extra time to study or negotiate financial aid.
Many colleges, including USC, expanded their financial aid budgets this year, but individual awards were often less generous than in previous years, several experts said.
"There wasn't enough money to go around," said College Board senior analyst Sandy Baum, who teaches at Skidmore College.
At the same time, home equity and stock values that families might have borrowed against have plummeted. Many parents, given the economic uncertainty, are wary of taking on college loans. And some are rethinking the value of a $200,000 private, or even a $100,000 public, education.
"The middle class has been financing the rise in college costs by borrowing," said Patrick M. Callan, president of the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education. "Now people are starting to question: 'Is it worth it?' "
Families tend to have unrealistic expectations of financial aid, which often consists mainly of eligibility for loans and work study jobs, the experts said. Still, many households had a far rosier financial outlook last fall, when students applied to college, and many were caught flat-footed by the gaps between their aid offers and their resources.
Ruth Rodriguez, a municipal worker, said she and her husband, a computer company employee, have a combined annual income of about $140,000. They had hoped that their daughter, an A student at highly competitive Whitney High School in Cerritos, would receive grant or scholarship aid from the state or USC. Instead, she was told she was eligible for $5,500 in student loans.
"She's so well-rounded, so bright, how can she not be offered a scholarship or grant?" the mother said, citing her daughter's involvement in sports, community service and youth-in-government activities. "We are standard, everyday working people . . . who has that kind of money sitting in their bank account?"
L. Katharine Harrington, USC's dean of admissions and financial aid, said she could not comment on an individual student's situation. But she said the school, which expanded its financial aid budget by 8% for next school year, is doing everything it can to take into account cases of economic hardship.
"What I'm hearing when I talk to families, and what I hear every year, is my kid's a smart kid, why don't you give her a scholarship?" Harrington said. "Only the top 12 to 15% get scholarships."
But to Krystal Rodriguez, it is maddening that the future she worked so hard to realize turns on dollars and cents.
"It's utterly, extremely disappointing to think I won't be able to go there and that money is the deciding factor," she said.
Money, namely the ability of families to pay the cost of their children's college education, was more of a factor in admissions this year as well, some schools acknowledged. Officials at Tufts University in Massachusetts surprised some observers recently by disclosing that the school had dropped its "need-blind" policy for the lowest 5% of applicants. Under such policies, students are admitted without regard to what they can pay.
But most private colleges make no claim to need-blind admission. And even those schools that fill most of their slots with students without consideration of their income, often accept some who are slightly less qualified but can pay full freight in place of poorer ones who need aid.