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Quadruplets heading to different colleges contend with student loans

Debra Erdley
| Saturday, Aug. 22, 2015, 9:52 p.m.
Quadruplets (clockwise from left) Derek, Rachel, Justin and Gabey Bakewell of Elizabeth Township pose for a portrait at their home on Wednesday, Aug. 12, 2015.
Brian F. Henry | Trib Total Media
Quadruplets (clockwise from left) Derek, Rachel, Justin and Gabey Bakewell of Elizabeth Township pose for a portrait at their home on Wednesday, Aug. 12, 2015.
(L-R) Quadruplets, Gabey, Justin, Rachel and Derek Bakewell, of Elizabeth Township, sit for a portrait at their home on Wednesday, Aug. 12, 2015.
Brian F. Henry | Trib Total Media
(L-R) Quadruplets, Gabey, Justin, Rachel and Derek Bakewell, of Elizabeth Township, sit for a portrait at their home on Wednesday, Aug. 12, 2015.

Tom and Laura Bakewell know more about the cost of college — emotional and financial — than most parents want to learn.

The Bakewells — he's a fifth-grade teacher at Elizabeth Forward, and she's a pharmaceutical company rep — are sending their 18-year-old quadruplets off to college this month. Four colleges, to be precise.

Derek left for Westminster College in Lawrence County last week.

Gabey headed for Columbus and Ohio State on Saturday.

Rachel will go to Salisbury State in eastern Maryland on Wednesday.

And Justin will be off Thursday for St. Vincent College near Latrobe.

Each visited at least three colleges before deciding on a school that had the right feel. Their departures, one after another, are the climax of months of planning and hundreds of miles of travel.

The Bakewells knew there would be tears.

A week before the first send-off, there had been a few. Such as when Justin presented his sisters with going-away gifts, or the day Laura, home alone with Gabey, went to her daughter's bedroom “bawling my eyes out” when watching an episode of “Modern Family” about a daughter leaving for college.

Take scenarios like those times four and add in concerns about the close-knit tribe of four coping without their built-in sibling support system, and you get a sense of what the Bakewells have gone through.

Like freshmen everywhere, the Bakewell siblings are looking forward to college life. They'll be navigating new territory, learning new routines and making friends, but with a twist.

“I think they are starting to feel it very deeply — the fact that they are leaving each other. They are going to be alone, all by themselves. For 18 years, they've had a built-in support system,” Laura Bakewell said, glancing nervously around the family room as the quadruplets, decked out in four different college T-shirts, sat down to talk about college earlier this month.

After 13 years of attending the same schools, Rachel, Gabey, Derek and Justin conceded they'll miss one another. But they look forward to being seen as individuals rather than “the quads.”

“Not that any of them have made a bad first impression, but it will be nice to make a majority of your first impressions by yourself,” said Derek, grinning.

Although the emotional tug of the family's first big separation and the thought of an empty nest are trying, the cost of college for four is mind-boggling.

All told, the sticker price at the four schools totals about $160,000 a year.

That's in line with the College Board's most recent survey that pegged spending for an education at an out-of-state public university at about $32,700 a year in 2014-15, while the average for a private college was about $46,272.

The Bakewells managed to pare down that figure, but not nearly as much as Tom Bakewell would have liked.

“We were very fortunate that the four of them did so well in school and a lot of academic scholarships came through, but we didn't get any of the financial aid we thought we'd get. I thought with four of them, we'd get a lot more aid,” he said.

Working in higher education for 13 years before moving back to Pennsylvania, he knew many of the ins and outs of financial aid. And Laura Bakewell signed up for the college cost coaching service her employer offered as part of its benefit package.

That helped them navigate the confusing maze of grants and loans they needed to send off four freshmen.

And when financial aid offers came in lower than they'd hoped, the Bakewells went back to the schools to plead their case.

“The private schools were willing to talk to us, but the state schools said, ‘That's the way it is,' ” Tom Bakewell said. “The two private schools really gave us the best deals.”

That's not surprising, said Mark Kantrowitz. The senior vice president and publisher of Edvisors.com, a free website that helps families plan for college costs, he is a nationally known expert on financial aid who has testified about the topic before Congress.

“Private colleges are higher cost, but usually, they give big discounts that bring the net price down a lot. The two public colleges you mentioned are out-of-state, which leads to higher tuition,” Kantrowitz said.

Moreover, public colleges and universities that have lost state subsidies or remained stagnant in recent years have come to rely on higher tuition from out-of-state students to balance their budgets.

Even with scholarships and their earnings, the Bakewell siblings will rely, in part, on student loans. Justin and Derek are making do with federal student loans, and their sisters had to add a private loan and Parent Plus loan to pay their way.

What the future holds for them and thousands of others headed to college for the first time this fall is uncertain.

With average student debt levels for a four-year degree topping $30,000 in many areas and the national student debt exceeding $1.3 trillion, college cost is a topic gaining traction with candidates eyeing the 2016 elections.

“College students were a swing vote in the last two presidential elections,” Kantrowitz said. “Students and their families are increasingly concerned about college affordability and the burden of student loan debt.”

He recently released a paper calling for an overhaul of federal student aid programs and tax breaks to provide free flat tuition for students at two- and four-year public institutions. Kantrowitz said his proposal would require no new additional funds.

Hillary Clinton, the first presidential hopeful to come out with a plan, has proposed a $350 billion proposal to lower interest rates on student loans and allow students to attend a public two- or four-year school tuition-free.

Debra Erdley is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-320-7996 or derdley@tribweb.com.

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