The High Cost of Private School

Zoe Viklund

In the fall, Zoe Viklund will be attending New York University, which offered her a substantial merit scholarship. hide caption

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The Viklund family of Washington state had no idea what it was getting into when daughter Zoe applied to several elite private schools. Like many middle-class students, Zoe found that her family had too much money to qualify for grants and scholarships, but not enough to pay her way.

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And I'm Melissa Block.

Today in our series on paying for college, a Washington state family and their daughters dream of attending a private school out of state. Like many middle-class families, the Viklunds found that they make too much money to qualify for many grants and scholarships, but not enough to pay their own way. NPR's Wendy Kaufman reports from Seattle.

WENDY KAUFMAN reporting:

Meet Zoe Viklund. Clad in blue jeans and a comfy shirt, she's curled up on the couch inside her family's 1940s bungalow. The teen-ager with a warm smile and an easy laugh is an active community volunteer. She won a nationwide video production contest, helped edit the school newspaper, runs track, has a near-perfect 4.0, high SAT scores and speaks fluent Swedish. When it came to choosing a college, Zoe aimed high.

ZOE VIKLUND (Student): My list was Columbia, Barnard, Vassar, NYU, Drew, Brown, Tufts, Georgetown, Harvard...

KAUFMAN: She got her first glimpse of the Ivy League and other prestigious colleges at a middle-school presentation and began to dream of going there. In a high school south of Seattle where about 30 percent of the students don't graduate, Zoe took the hardest classes she could and kept asking for more. Counselors and teachers told her, `Go for the best, and don't worry about the money; it will take care of itself.'

VIKLUND: And so when I'm looking at these colleges and I see that it's $43,000 a year times four--I mean, when I'm looking at that, I was just thinking, `Yeah, I'll get loans, I'll get scholarships. I can get grant money and, you know, it's going to be fine.' And...

KAUFMAN: The first hint of a problem came when Zoe's parents, Anders and Tracy Viklund, completed their FAFSA. Their Free Application for Federal Student Aid is used by schools across the country. It was Zoe's dad Anders who spent dozens of hours poring through financial documents and completing about a hundred questions. After he had submitted the application online, the computer spit out a number, the EFC, expected family contribution.

Mr. ANDERS VIKLUND (Zoe's Father): It didn't have any dollar signs or anything, and I was thinking that there was, like, a password or something. But then I realized that's what--that was actually the dollar amount.

Mrs. TRACY VIKLUND (Zoe's Mother): I remember him walking in the door and saying, `Well, it's done,' and at the end we got this magic number popped up on the screen, and it was 22,000. And we were both pretty stunned.

KAUFMAN: Their EFC would grow to more than 30,000 once additional information was factored into their equation. As a sales representative in the printing industry, Anders Viklund makes good money. But with two other children in the family, the Viklunds figured they could pay as much as 15,000, not twice that.

Mr. DOUG BREITHAUPT (President, College Planning Network): Most families, when they see the EFC, are going to be dumbfounded because in almost all cases, other than for the very neediest families, the EFC flat-out doesn't make sense.

KAUFMAN: Doug Breithaupt is president of the non-profit College Planning Network.

Mr. BREITHAUPT: There isn't a single question relating to your expenses. It's because they don't have any expense information that the EFC is often one-third to one-half higher than it should be.

KAUFMAN: The US Department of Education says FAFSA formulas are updated periodically and take into account family living expenses. At the same time, the department says no single form can accommodate all possible combinations of income and household circumstances. The department points out that college financial aid administrators can use their own judgment instead of the FAFSA number.

But Zoe's family learned all of this much too late. Financial aid applications aren't due until after many admissions deadlines, and Zoe's mother says if she knew then what she knows now, she might have approached things differently.

Mrs. VIKLUND: You know, had we come up with this magic FAFSA number, this estimated family contribution, prior to Zoe's applying to schools, we may have said, `Uh-oh, Zoe, don't apply to those schools because we're not going to be able to pay this number.'

KAUFMAN: Zoe got into several schools, including her first choice, Barnard College, part of New York's Columbia University. But Barnard told her that her family would have to come up with more than $30,000 each year. In a meeting with Zoe, a blunt financial aid adviser at the college laid out the disappointing reality.

VIKLUND: She said, `You know, it's going to be hard to get those loans.' Blah-dee-blah-dee-blah. She goes, `And that's a lot of debt to get yourself into, 'cause then you're looking at between 100 and $150,000 worth of debt by the time you graduate.' And I go, `Yeah, that's a lot of money.' And she's like, `So I guess maybe Barnard's not the place for you.' And that's how she ended the conversation.

KAUFMAN: There is a happy ending to this story. New York University, a highly selective private school, offered her a substantial merit scholarship, and Zoe will be in their entering freshman class.

The Viklunds' experience conveys the sometimes intimidating, sometimes mystifying world of obtaining financial aid. But Doug Breithaupt of the College Planning Network says the process is often negotiable. Many private colleges offer sizable financial aid packages, and Breithaupt says if students have more than one offer, they can play the schools against each other.

Mr. BREITHAUPT: It's financial aid hardball, and you see amazing results.

KAUFMAN: Of course, schools with large endowments typically give out the most money, and when it comes to merit aid, they have complete discretion and can reward anyone they wish. One year it could be a trio of oboe players; the next, a champion debater or a 17-year-old Swedish-speaking video producer from Seattle.

VIKLUND: I just want everybody who may be in my position next year to go for it, but to realize that, you know, the whole thing where people are like, `Don't worry about money'--do worry about money, because, you know, it comes back and bites you if you don't.

KAUFMAN: Zoe Viklund's freshman orientation at NYU is just weeks away. Wendy Kaufman, NPR News, Seattle.

BLOCK: For advice on private scholarships and other ways to help pay for college, check out our Web site, npr.org.

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