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Here's the reality for most college students today: It's not whether you'll graduate with debt. It's just a matter of how much. Seventy percent of today's graduates leave school owing money, on average, close to $30,000. And this is a change from the past. Two decades ago, fewer half of all students needed loans for college. Their average debt after four years was $9,000. Another challenge today is that the federal government often concludes that families need less financial aid than the families themselves think they do. NPR has been looking at how Americans are paying for college. NPR's Eric Westervelt has this morning's story.

ALYSSA TUCKER: I honestly have no idea how I'm going to pay for school. I'm the first one in my family to go to college.

THAO LE: I think we all have our fingers crossed for a full ride, and, like, it's really scary to me.

ERIC WESTERVELT, BYLINE: Alyssa Tucker and Thao Le sit on a metal table in a sunny courtyard of Irvington, a large public high school in Fremont, California, southeast of San Francisco. Both come from families with modest incomes, are 17 and are facing college this fall with anxious excitement. They put in years of hard work, lots of late nights and weekends studying. They've excelled academically, and they're confident they can shine in college, too. But there's that big price tag, and it's not just tuition. There's also housing, medical, food, transportation, books, supplies and other fees. Le's father lost his engineering job during the Great Recession. Her mom works as a quality control technician. They tell their daughter not to stress: They'll do what it takes to pay for school.

LE: My dad even said I'll even sell our house if you really need to go to a school. And I just - I don't want that to happen. You know, I know education is important, but I don't want to put everything that my parents make on the line.

WESTERVELT: Putting everything on the line: It's a worry shared by tens of thousands of students and their families wondering how they'll pay for higher education in an era when family and state budgets are clawing their way back from recession-induced hits. Le has applied to top schools, including USC, Dartmouth and Stanford. But, she says, I'm ready to go to a community college to save up and transfer when I can afford to. Alyssa Tucker nods. My mom's super supportive, she says, adding: She knows I've worked so hard for so long to get to a good college. But financially, she adds, there are big limits on what she can contribute.

TUCKER: I come from a pretty difficult family situation. My family, they just can't afford anything else. So I'm just on my own, pretty much, hoping that I don't have to take out too much in loans.

WESTERVELT: U.S. Department of Education data show that three-quarters of American undergrads have some amount of unmet financial need they have to cover with loans, a job while in college, or both. Take Pell Grants, the largest federal aid program aimed mainly at low-income students. Even after taking into account federal loans and work-study, the data show that about 86 percent of Pell recipients had nearly $9,000 in unmet need, on average, per year. Seventeen-year-old Thao Le says grasping how the payment puzzle will all fit together is tough.

LE: A lot of kids, like, their parents don't really tell them about the whole financial situation. Or even if they did, it's kind of hard to understand at this age, because we're just, like, overloaded with everything else. We don't even know how taxes even work.

WESTERVELT: Recent efforts to simplify and clarify the aid process include making a family's federal tax data easier to access and requiring net price calculators on all college websites. But critics say those changes don't go nearly far enough. The daunting, complex aid process can be even more so for low-income and first-generation-to-college families, says Sandy Baum, a senior fellow at the Urban Institute. Navigating that tangled aid forest, she says, takes effort, time and savvy that some families may not have.

SANDY BAUM: It is a huge problem that it is so hard to get the information that you need. The information is there. It's just too complicated, and people need personal help. So, if you're lucky, you have a good high school guidance counselor. There are many websites out there that can be helpful. So it's not so much that we need more information. We need better information, and we need to get that information to people.

WESTERVELT: To apply for federal financial aid, families have to embrace the dreaded FAFSA: the Free Application for Federal Student Aid. Families have to enter income, asset, tax and other information. Anyone who's ever filled one out knows the FAFSA is about as much fun as doing your taxes. But it's the key form: In addition to federal assistance, many state and college aid programs use it. That FAFSA information is then filtered through one of eight formulas that look at income and several other factors. The formula then spits out a number: the expected family contribution, EFC, or as one commentator called it, exasperated financial confusion.

LAUREN ASHER: Very few people will look at that number and feel like, oh, no problem. I can just whip out my checkbook.

WESTERVELT: Lauren Asher is president of the Institute for College Access and Success, a research and advocacy group. She notes one study shows that the complexity and relative confusion surrounding the application process for Pell Grants may discourage those who need it most from even applying for aid: lower-income students who may be wavering about college because of cost worries.

ASHER: The formula that the federal aid system uses to determine your estimated family contribution is not perfect. Some would like to see it greatly simplified. It's a common public misperception that the lowest-income students are getting their financial aid needs met when they go to college, and that's simply not true. They are much more likely to have loans and to owe more than all other students.

WESTERVELT: Colleges have been asking students and families to cover more and more of the cost, Asher says, which are rising faster than family income or available grant aid. So, more students - undergraduate and graduate - are borrowing ever more amounts to fill the gap.

TRACY BUTLER: My name is Tracy Butler. I'm 24 years old, and I live in Columbus, Ohio. I am finishing up a doctorate in physical therapy, and then my fiance is finishing up his medical degree.

WESTERVELT: Butler and her fiance are likely to earn good salaries in their respective medical fields, but their combined - mostly federal - debt load by the time they finish school later this year: at least $350,000.

BUTLER: We're definitely planning to live minimally, you know, not take lots of vacations or live in a fancy apartment and delay buying a house, which is unfortunate.

WESTERVELT: So, what's part of the solution to all this? Tracy and her fiance are heartened about a relatively new federal income-based repayment program. It ties the loan repayment amount to how much you earn and family size. And, after 20 years, if they still owe money, the remainder is forgiven. Lauren Asher with the Institute for College Access and Success pushed for that plan. She says while it doesn't solve the problem of rising cost and debt, income-based repayment is a big step forward.

ASHER: That's a light at the end of a tunnel. The forgiveness in the income-driven plans is the assurance that your payments will not last forever. They won't follow you to the grave.

WESTERVELT: Now, few can predict their income five years down the line, let alone 20. But Tracy Butler says the program offers solace that the debt burden might be manageable, and may allow her and her fiance to start saving for kids, a mortgage or retirement a lot sooner. Eric Westervelt, NPR News.

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