Paying tuition a challenge as costs skyrocket and aid varies
Tammy Abercrombie thought she did everything right to ensure that her daughter Tyanna, a high school senior at Aliquippa Junior/Senior High School, wouldn't become another student bogged down by college debt.
The Abercrombies opened a college savings plan when Tyanna was 7 and diligently socked away cash. But with college looming large and costs averaging about $20,000 a year at public universities — and $40,000 and up at private schools — they're wondering how they will pay the bill.
“Even with the savings we have, it's still not enough,” Abercrombie said as she and Tyanna joined hundreds of students and parents at a scholarship fair this month at Barack Obama Academy in East Liberty.
Little about student aid is transparent. Private universities sometimes undercut public universities with aid packages. It's rarely clear which schools base aid on financial need and which offer merit aid, regardless of need. Some schools require as many as three financial aid forms.
“It is probably more complicated to do the paperwork for student loans and scholarships than to do your income tax,” said John T. Delaney, dean of the Katz Graduate School of Business and the College of Business Administration at the University of Pittsburgh.
And sticker prices that colleges advertise don't necessarily reflect what a student will pay.
Seven in 10 Pennsylvania college students graduated last year with an average debt load of $31,675, according to the Institute for College Access and Success' Project on Student Debt.
Managing the load
Even parents who opened college savings accounts are stunned that the cost of college rose twice as fast as inflation over the past 15 years.
This year's maximum federal Pell grant for Pennsylvania's neediest students is $5,730, and the maximum state PHEAA grant is $4,210, leaving a gap at even the lowest-cost institutions.
Financial aid officers say some parents dip into retirement money, take out home equity loans or seek federal Parent PLUS loans to cover costs.
Monique Szentmiklosi, 23, a senior at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, commutes from her home several miles outside of town — which can reduce annual costs by as much as $10,000 a year — and works two jobs.
Szentmiklosi, who will graduate with a nursing degree in December, said she'll probably have about $30,000 in loan debt. She juggles a 25-hour-a-week campus work-study job and works 16 hours every other weekend as a nursing assistant at St. Andrew's Village. With help from family members, she limited her borrowing to federal Stafford loans and avoided private loan debt.
“It's tough, but I manage somehow,” Szentmiklosi said.
The U.S. Department of Education requires colleges to post costs on its College Navigator website, nces.ed.gov/collegenavigator/.
Lawrene Bottorf, co-founder of GetCollegeFunding.org, said the explosion in costs began 20 years ago when the government lifted its $4,000 cap on student loans.
This year, the government allocated nearly $100 billion for student loans and $23.7 billion for need-based grants. Pennsylvania allocated $407 million in need-based grant money to students.
“Finding out what school will give (a student) the most money is key,” said Bridget Hotrum, president and CEO of the College Bound Admissions Academy in McMurray.
Hotrum recounted her experience with a family who expected to pay $60,000 a year toward their daughter's education. Bucknell, a private university in Lewisburg that offers need-based scholarships, was prepared to admit her at $55,000 a year. Juniata, a small, central Pennsylvania college, countered with a $30,000 merit scholarship that left the family a $12,000-a-year bill.
“They chose Juniata over Bucknell. Both schools had similar programs, and both had 100 percent acceptance rates to med school. Her family could have afforded the more expensive school, but she wanted to have money to pay for med school,” Hotrum said.
Joe Peterson, a senior at Robert Morris University in Moon who works two campus jobs, considers his $60,000 student loan debt a good investment.
Robert Morris gave him a $12,000-a-year scholarship, good for all four years, but the school costs more than $40,000 a year.
“When I worked out all the math and all the numbers, it was a no-brainer. This was where I could see myself being happy,” said Peterson, who hopes to graduate in December and become a financial adviser or work in wealth management.
Experts advise students to max out their federal loans — capped at $5,500 this year for freshmen and $7,500 for upperclassmen — before turning to private lenders that don't carry provisions for income-based repayment or public-service loan forgiveness.
Sometimes there aren't enough options, even at Robert Morris where 99 percent of students received grants that averaged $14,483 per student last year.
With a few students each year, “we talk through and encourage them to go to community college, pick an avenue that is more affordable, and then transfer to Robert Morris,” said Wendy Beckemeyer, vice president for enrollment and financial aid.
Anna Griswold, Penn State University's vice president for undergraduate education and executive director of student aid, tells similar tales. Penn State officials point state residents to the 18 branch campuses, where tuition can be $3,000 to $4,000 a year less and students can live at home, then later transfer to University Park.
Some complain that the state-related university is tightfisted with aid. Griswold said the school is working to boost scholarships; it increased total grants from $60 million in 2007-08 to $97.5 million last year. Today about 23 percent of its nearly 100,000 students have institutional scholarships averaging $2,500 to $3,000 a year.
“Far more of our money is going to students with financial need rather than merit,” Griswold said.
Officials at Pitt declined to discuss the financial aid process, saying only that Pitt admits students without regard for ability to pay and suggests families look at the university's net cost calculator: www.npc.pitt.edu/pittsburgh/npcalc.htm.
Debra Erdley is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-320-7996 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Staff writer Melissa Daniels contributed to this report.