Paying For College During The Downturn The average tuition at a four-year private college is $23,000 and rising. We visit Seattle Pacific University, which has seen the number of student appeals to the financial aid office double in the last year.
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Paying For College During The Downturn

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Paying For College During The Downturn

Paying For College During The Downturn

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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This is Day to Day. I'm Madeleine Brand.


I'm Alex Chadwick. Average tuition at a four year private college now $23,000 a year.

BRAND: And that's just tuition.

CHADWICK: In this economy, students and parents are struggling to figure out what to do, how to pay those bills. For our series on education, Reporter Phyllis Fletcher from member station KUOW in Seattle has one family's story.

PHYLLIS FLETCHER: Jordan Grant can tell you what's happening at Seattle Pacific University. Students are making repeat visits to their financial aid office.

Mr. JORDAN GRANT (Financial Aid Officer, Seattle Pacific University): Right now, I imagine our front line representatives are catching their breaths a little bit.

FLETCHER: Financial aid workers at Seattle Pacific wait for the lunch rush. Grant is their boss. He's been in financial aid for 14 years. Seattle Pacific is a small private college. The number of student appeals to his office is double from last year.

Mr. GRANT: Right now, we are around the cusp of a 100.

FLETCHER: That's a 100 times students have had to go back to Grant's office to say their mom lost her job. Their dad's business fell apart. And from experience, Grant knows a lot of students might not be saying anything.

Mr. GRANT: It can be kind of intimidating for students, but financial aid offices do not have the capability to sit in their office and anticipate when somebody's going to have a loss of income.

FLETCHER: So that means families have to tell him, and for some people, that's really hard. Dean Daniels (ph) has put his three daughters through school at Seattle Pacific. His youngest is now a senior. He's in real estate in a small town in western Colorado. You might be able to guess what happened.

Mr. DEAN DANIELS (Real Estate Broker, Colorado): It's been a big change from the previous year, and last year was down considerably, and then this year was down even more so.

FLETCHER: Daniels asked that we not talk to his daughter because he feels protective of her. He doesn't want her to be embarrassed. He felt terrible having to call Jordan Grant's office to fork over all the details and paperwork.

Mr. DANIELS: It makes you kind of feel like you're not quite holding on to your end of the deal. Just to pay cash and go on, you know, it would be nice to do but...

FLETCHER: He couldn't. Not this year. And as Jordan Grant says, he's not alone.

Mr. GRANT: Things can change very quickly, as we've seen this last week. Things can change dramatically.

FLETCHER: And those dramatic changes affect colleges in three ways, stock performance of their endowments, charitable gifts, and the financial situations of students. Violet Boyer, with the group Independent Colleges of Washington, says, when the economy is strong, people tend to work instead of go to school. But eventually, that flips.

Ms. VIOLET BOYER (President, CEO, Independent Colleges of Washington): When the economy is in the position it's in now, when it's not as healthy, it's not as robust, people go back to college.

FLETCHER: And she says the draw on student aid is even higher.

Ms. BOYER: Because you've got more people enrolling, and you tend to have more needy students enroll.

FLETCHER: Boyer says, right now, everything seems fine. More students are appealing their aid packages, but they're generally able to get more help when they do. But she's concerned about a couple of things for next year or even next quarter.

Ms. BOYER: If the bailout drains all of the federal resources, and money isn't available for student aid, that's a huge problem for us. The private loans, if the banks that are left decide that that's not a profitable place to be, that would be harmful.

FLETCHER: But she says the good news is it's not happening yet. Students can still borrow what they need. And she says, even if endowments get hit hard in any one year, many schools use a three year average to figure out how much to spend. SPU uses a 10 year average so that even in hard times, the school can draw larger amounts off its endowment every year, something SPU considers a necessity.

For Dean Daniels, sending his daughters to Seattle Pacific was a necessity. Tuition at SPU is nearly $27,000 a year, but because of scholarships, for Daniels, it wasn't much more than a state school. And he has advice for parents who may be feeling bad right now about the tuition bill that's coming up. He says take the leap. Talk to the financial aid office even if you think it's too late.

Mr. DANIELS: Just be totally honest with what your situation is and trust in their judgment to rank all of us out there accordingly in with what resources they have available.

FLETCHER: Daniels is concerned about the effect all this would have on his daughter. What she might not know is that a lot of people around the country are in the same boat, and at least 100 of her schoolmates have already gotten help, even if they were scared to ask. For NPR News, I'm Phyllis Fletcher in Seattle.

(Soundbite of music)

CHADWICK: I know this is more recent for you than it is for me, since I was in college longer ago, but money was really a problem then. Tuition was cheaper, but times I was on the GI bill, I was working 30-40 hours a week.

BRAND: 30 to 40 hours a week and going to school?

CHADWICK: And going to school.

BRAND: Oh my gosh. Well, I went to a state school, so I didn't have to pay a lot a lot of money for tuition, but I did take out a second job, and it was at this note-taking service for undergraduates, who'd pay a fee, and some poor grad student would take notes at these big lecture classes, and then these undergrads would pay for it. I guess legal, but a little ethically dubious.

CHADWICK: What the heck, you got to go through school. So we'd like to hear your stories, listeners, at our blog, How did you manage to get through college?

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