Sticker shock from college costs

LINDA CONNER LAMBECK

Article Last Updated: 08/16/2008 11:31:35 PM EDT

Travis Sullivan, 19, a 2007 graduate of Bridgeport's Harding High School, did so well last year in the financial aid arena the University of Connecticut practically ended up owing him money.

This year, despite ongoing scholarships from the Broad Foundation and Gear Up, and a Pell grant, reduced school aid will mean taking out up to $6,000 in loans towards a $18,638 tuition, room and board bill.

He worries how much that will be compounded in his junior and senior years. "If you're talking need-based, I want to know who's more needy. We're very poor," said Sullivan, who lives with a single parent.

Yet, he feels he has no other choice, so this future software developer signs on the dotted line.

The reauthorization this summer of the Higher Education Act — signed Thursday by President Bush — will ratchet up annual Pell Grant awards as well as the amount students can borrow, but doesn't offer much solace to students also facing annual tuition increases.

The act, strives to make students more aware of the cost of college and textbooks. It offers more grant and loan forgiveness programs to individuals who choose and stick with careers in high need areas for at least three years and it will force colleges to explain tuition increases.

Most local college financial aid officials say the act is a step — albeit a little one — in the right direction.

"Anything they do is helpful, but it would have been nice if they had done this a few years back, said Kathy Gailor, director of financial aid at the University of Bridgeport.

As it is, the Pell grant increase doesn't kick in until next year.

At a maximum of $4,731 now, Pell Grants will increase to $6,000 for academic year 2009-2010 to $8,000 for 2014-2015.

Gailor said most students rely on loans to make up the gap between what they and their families can chip in and what college costs.

For all the financial aid seminars parents and students get during the college application process, most remain immune to sticker shock.

"Many of them hear, 'Don't worry about what school you want to go to because financial aid is there for you. That's really just not the case any more," Gailor said.

Her office spends a lot of time deciphering it all for students and their parents: that unstipulated grants are better than those with strings; grants are better than loans; government loans are generally better than private loans; subsidized loans are better than unsubsidized.

Within the 1,158-page act are provisions that offer loan forgiveness of up to $2,000 per year up to $10,000 for students employed in high need areas such as early childhood educators, nurses, foreign language specialists, librarians, speech pathologists, police and firefighters, nutritionists, mental health professionals, dentists, physical and occupational therapists, and individuals employed in sciences, technology, engineering, or mathematics.

A separate Teacher Grant program, designed to increase the number of qualified teachers in high poverty areas, would require recipients to teach for no less than three years following a one-year teaching residency program. Otherwise, the grant reverts to a loan with retroactive interest.

Judy Dobai, associate academic Vice President for Enrollment Management at Fairfield University, said the Teacher Grant will be available at universities that participate. Fairfield plans to sign up now that the law has established that students won't be penalized if the need for such teachers suddenly dries up.

At the University of Connecticut the teach grant will only be offered to juniors _ who have had a chance to decide on their lives work. At UB, it will only be offered to graduate students.

At Fairfield, 60 percent of Fairfield students will borrow money to finance their education - a number that really hasn't changed over time, Dobai said.

What has changed is the university's investment in grant money _ at least $3 million a year. That, while tuition at Fairfield went up about $1,500 this fall to $35,510 a year for full-time undergraduates.

At UConn, Jean Main, director of student financial aid services views the Pell Grant increase as sizable _ considering it remained static for three years in a row.

"That absolutely will help keep kids in school," she said.

Last year at UConn, 3,341 students qualified for full to partial Pell grants depending on their expected family contribution. Under the new law, Pell Grants are renewable for undergrads for up to 9 years. It used to be longer.

Also significant, Main said, will be all the consumer information the U.S. Secretary of Education will be putting out to increase transparency.

The law calls for the development of a federal Student Financial aid web site by next year. The "College Navigator" will tell students the cost of colleges and which have gone up in price the fastest. Colleges would be required to explain the cost increases and steps taken toward reducing costs.

The web site will also give students information about enrollment, admission percentages, transfer rates, racial breakdowns and graduation rates.

Another provision concerns textbooks. Publishers have to disclose the copyright dates of three previous editions and content changes of college texts to show how fast books become obsolete.

At Housatonic Community College, Barbara Surowiec, said she's not too thrilled with changes that allow students to borrow more _ up to $2,000 more per year in unsubsidized loans.

The maximum dependent students used to be able to borrow in Stafford loans in their freshmen year was $3,500. Now its $5,500. It rises to $7,500 for juniors and seniors.

"I do not want our students to have additional liability," said Surowiec. "I realize they have to borrow but I preferred they didn't."

Even Stafford loans _ considered "good debt" because the interest is less than traditional loans _ still needs to be paid back, she said.

Surowiec said her office does all it can to make sure students know what they are getting into when they borrow.

"Housatonic is not that expensive. We try to counsel them to not borrow if they can get away with it, especially if they plan to go on to a four year school which is much more expensive," she said.

Tuition and fees this year at Housatonic totals $2,988 for a full-time undergraduate.

Surowiec and others financial aid counselors say they spend their days counseling students.

Sullivan, the sophomore from UConn, said most of his best advise came from his college advisor.

"I know a lot of friends who have way more debt than I do," he said.

Efforts are being made to start advising students sooner.

At "Let's Get Ready" a six-week college prep program for Bridgeport high school seniors hosted on the UB campus, students have not only visited colleges, and crammed for SAT's but filled out college applications have begun to talk about cost, said Jessica Bromberg, the program site director and recent Fairfield U graduate.

One participant, Olivia Barham, 15, a junior at Central High School in Bridgeport who loves science, said her cost cutting strategy is to rack up as many college credits during high school as she can.

She'd like to attend Northeastern University in Boston, where tuition is $45,000 a year. "I know it's expensive," she said. "I hope for scholarships and financial aid and maybe a job so I can pay some of it off as I go along."

Kannina Hampton, 16, another participant who is a senior at Bassick, said she thinks about how to pay for college a lot.

The University of New Haven is her top school at the moment because of its criminal justice program. She wants to be a lawyer. Tuition there is $26,000 a year.

"It's very high but you know if you really want to do something you'll do what you have to do to get there. That's how I feel," she said.