ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
I'm on the campus of the University of Maryland, just outside Washington, D.C. It's a big state university - more than 27,000 undergraduates. Here at the student union, or Stamp, I'm overlooking the food court that's worthy of a big suburban mall. Today we're going to meet three students who are finishing college here this year. For young people of their age, going to college has been a different experience from years past. The cost has risen, and the Great Recession cut into many of the assets that were supposed to pay for it.
This week we'll hear from young people, and in some cases, from their parents as well, about the value of it all and about their choice of what kind of college to attend. Nearly 40 percent of their classmates nationwide who pursued a higher education chose four-year state college or university like the University of Maryland.
RHYS HALL: My name is Rhys Hall. I'm a rising senior sociology major at the University of Maryland. I'm looking to pursue a Ph.D. in sociology and become a research-based professor. I would like to complete my graduate studies here in Maryland, but, hey - I'm an open agent, you know what I mean? So anyone who's looking, please be sure to scout me.
SIEGEL: Like all the students we'll hear this week, Rhys Hall went to high school in Montgomery County, Md. It's a very wealthy and a very diverse county.
Today, three members of the high school class of 2012 who are nearing the end of college. Rhys Hall is the third of Cassandra Hall's four children. She's a single mother who's currently out of work. By living at home, working a couple of jobs and getting some scholarship money, Rhys can almost manage the cost of his college education.
Do you have debts?
R. HALL: Student loans, governments subsidized and unsubsidized loans. I don't want to start paying them off until I graduate, so for the time being, I'm taking them out. And it covers a good portion of the expenses - not all of them - and I think that's where the working and the applying for scholarships balances out the entire cost.
SIEGEL: Four years ago as high school seniors, the three young people we'll hear today were making a choice. Rhys Hall was just getting serious about academics and abandoning what had been a preoccupation with playing football. His mother thought he should go somewhere away from home.
CASSANDRA HALL: I wanted Rhys to go away. I think that college is much broader an experience than just four years of academics and a degree. He actually decided to go to University of Maryland. They didn't seduce him with the money as the other schools did, as the private schools did.
SIEGEL: Rhys Hall says St. John's was offering $36,000 a year, but there would be costs of room and board and everyday life in New York City.
R. HALL: Looking at an online form that says, we have awarded you this much money, and thinking to yourself, $36,000 a year, for four years - that's more money than I've ever thought about.
SIEGEL: But it wasn't enough.
R. HALL: You would still have to have approximately $15,000-plus to be able to manage, and that was something that - we didn't really where that would come from.
SIEGEL: Morehouse College in Atlanta, an historically black college, offered $20,000, but that didn't check out either. The choice came down to either Maryland or starting out at two-year Montgomery College, the local and very well-regarded community college.
R. HALL: I felt confident that Maryland could offer me a great introductory education as well for only a few thousand more dollars, and we were also closer to Maryland. And I wanted to go to Maryland.
SIEGEL: I'm curious - what was the point of college? Was it to acquire some kind of trade or profession by which you could make a living? Was it to grow as an individual? How do you describe what it was that you - that you were looking for when you chose the University of Maryland?
R. HALL: I will not hide the fact that college was going to validate a sense of security in myself, a sense of accomplishment in myself, and I wanted to achieve a goal which was to be an attainee (ph) of a collegiate degree. At the same time...
SIEGEL: That alone, that in itself was an important objective.
R. HALL: ...Was crucial towards my own psyche.
SIEGEL: Rhys Hall has found inspiring teachers and mentors at Maryland. For all its size, for him, it's a place of close relationships with staff and faculty.
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UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER: Five seconds left. Taken away by Pack. And that'll do it. And Maryland again knocks off a top-five team at home.
SIEGEL: Maryland is also a place with big-time sports teams, and for some students, that's another part of its appeal.
KARIE CHEUNG: So my name is Karie Cheung. I am a senior graduating in December with a B.S. in community health here at the University of Maryland.
SIEGEL: Karie spoke with us in the dorm of 600 students where she manages the front desk staff. She'll finish her degree in three and a half years, spending most of this fall - her last semester - at an internship with Adventist HealthCare. Her parents are immigrants from China and Vietnam. She is a first-generation American and the first college student in her family. For her, the choice was between the community college and the state university, and her decision was driven by the environment and the prospect of the college experience.
CHEUNG: Because both my parents didn't get the experience of college, I never actually got to live vicariously through their stories or experiences, so I just wanted to have that traditional, live in the dorm freshman year, go to all the freshmen orientations.
SIEGEL: Be an all-American college kid.
CHEUNG: It's so exciting to be surrounded by so many people but yet they're all here for the same goal.
SIEGEL: Karie Cheung's parents are working people. They both work two jobs and they're paying most of her costs, and her dorm job helps her make ends meet. College at Maryland has prepared her for a career. It has also provided a community, including those basketball and football games.
CHEUNG: It's just another level of bonding, you with your fellow students. You guys can bond over the score that someone made, or the touchdown or that three-pointer at the last three seconds of the game. It's just something that gives you a backboard to bounce a conversation off of.
ALEJANDRA GONZALEZ-ARIZA: My name is Alejandra Gonzalez-Ariza. I have three names - two last names, actually. I was born in Bogota in South America.
SIEGEL: Alejandra is a senior political science major who met up with us in an outdoor cafe near her babysitting job. Her parents are Colombian and she has dual citizenship. Her father is in the Colombian Foreign Service, and she says that when it came time to apply for college, her parents' ideas were very different from her own.
GONZALEZ-ARIZA: It was interesting because my parents didn't really know what college is in America. So and my dad, like, he paid his own way through college. He got a full ride. And in Colombia, you go to school to learn and that's it. Then you still live with your parents and you commute every day and, you know, and so...
SIEGEL: And so her ideas about going to a college where she would fit in, where she would live in a dorm and cheer the basketball team were hard for them to understand, she says. As for money, she'd thought a lot about Fordham University in New York City, but $50,000 a year was too much. The tab at Maryland? Sixteen-thousand dollars.
She has a mixed bag of funding sources - some scholarships, her mother's savings and she'll have some loans to pay back. But Alejandra Gonzalez is satisfied that the University of Maryland gave her access to the same type of jobs as kids in private schools.
GONZALEZ-ARIZA: For example, I interned for Congress in Hoyer's office this summer...
SIEGEL: Steny Hoyer, the deputy minority leader of the House.
GONZALEZ-ARIZA: Yeah, yeah. And there are kids from Georgetown and G.W. there. And so I felt it was really cool that I was getting the exact same opportunities everyone else was, but I'm paying so much less for it (laughter).
SIEGEL: Throughout the year we'll hear again from our three satisfied seniors at the University of Maryland as life after college approaches. They came from different circumstances and faced different costs, but they all made a choice for academic, as well as social and psychological reasons. So do the kids we'll meet tomorrow. They came out of Montgomery County, Md., high schools and chose Montgomery College, the local community college, and they're thrilled that they did.
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