Sunday, February 1, 2004

Ambitious scholars, insufficient dollars


The first paper chase is for cold cash as college expenses soar

By Karen Gutierrez
The Cincinnati Enquirer

[IMAGE] Naim Qadri works with her children Faisal Siddiqui, 17, and Hina Siddiqui, 18, on college financial aid forms in their Sycamore Township home.
(Craig Ruttle photo)
MONTGOMERY - Lots of kids go to college, right? One year's tuition might equal half their parents' salary, but they still go. Every year. Lots of them.

This has become Naim Qadri's mantra. We'll manage, she keeps telling herself. Every family does.

Qadri is the mother of two high-school seniors. For her and thousands of others in Greater Cincinnati, this isn't just the 12th year of grade school. It's the year of gasps and groans.

The culprit: college costs that seem impossibly high.

In 2002, officials say rates of tuition, room and board averaged $9,680 a year at public universities and $25,403 at privates, according to "Trends in College Pricing," an annual study by the College Board. That's up about 67 percent compared to 10 years earlier.

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"I was not even sleeping right for the last two months," says Qadri, a Montgomery resident who works for the Cincinnati Health Department. "Literally, I was having panic attacks. I was going everywhere, all kinds of meetings, grabbing scholarship applications wherever I could find them, like Target."

For many families, the financial realities are just now hitting home. Some seniors are scaling back their ambitions and settling for colleges they think they can afford. Others have been furiously seeking scholarships - everything from $5,000 for the best Holocaust essay to $7,500 for scholar athletes sponsored by the "Got Milk?" people.

Terri Weir, a senior at Madeira High School, applied for about 25 scholarships she found on fastweb.com, the popular Web site for this purpose. She recently was accepted at Belmont University in Nashville, which costs about $21,000 a year and is the only school to which she applied.

"I wish with the scholarships, they'd let you know sooner," Weir says. "I'm getting close here. I've been accepted, but where's the money?"

College within reach

Experts have two responses for students like Weir.

No. 1, families are better off not expecting a bonanza of grants or scholarships. Paying for college often does involve the student's borrowing and working, they say.

No. 2 is more encouraging: The price probably isn't as high as many families think.

"They almost always overestimate the cost of an education," says Jim Miller, director of admission at the University of Wisconsin-Superior. "I constantly hear families quote figures that are way behind the actual cost at the universities they are considering."

One reason for the inflationary thinking: Universities tend to report high total costs in order to help students qualify for as much federal aid as possible.

In the end, schools assemble packages - loans, tuition discounts, work-study arrangements, scholarships - that put college at least within reach of ordinary Joes.

Consider the College Board's 2002 report on the actual rates paid by students, after taking into account grants and scholarships from universities and governments. The cost averaged $7,256 a year for public schools and $18,094 for privates, about 26 percent less than the official numbers.

The better the student, the lower the price.

Nick Trivett, a senior at St. Xavier High School, maintained an average grade of 92 percent and scored a 1290 out of a possible 1600 on the SAT. With his acceptance letter from Xavier University this fall came an offer of $8,000 toward the published rate of about $18,000. "I was like, 'Whoa, that's cool,' " says Trivett, who had no idea a scholarship was in the offing.

Filing for financial aid

Trivett's parents also will be filling out the all-important Free Application for Federal Student Aid.

No matter what their incomes, all families should take this step, experts recommend. The application can be submitted as early as Jan. 1 of the college-going year.

It determines whether students qualify for need-based federal grants such as the Pell, which does not have to be repaid. But the paperwork also can be forwarded to universities, which use it to assemble aid packages for students.

Naim Qadri, the Montgomery mother, knows all about this. She started filling out a practice application last year.

Both of her teenagers are seniors. Hina Siddiqui, (pronounced "Henna"), is 18, and Faisal Siddiqui, (pronounced "Fassle,"), is 17.

The family emigrated from Pakistan when the children were toddlers. Qadri and her husband divorced, and he returned to Pakistan. Now she and the children are U.S. citizens.

As a medical technologist for the Cincinnati Health Department, Qadri earns between $35,000 and $40,000 a year. She put a dent in the family's savings four years ago when she moved to the Sycamore Community School District for the rigorous academic environment at Sycamore High School.

Now she can't imagine shelling out thousands for two colleges. But with her income, she expects Hina and Faisal to qualify for only half of the maximum Pell grant of $4,000 a year.

"To be honest with you, I can't pay a penny," Qadri says. "I can't afford anything."

To save money, Faisal has decided to live at home and attend the University of Cincinnati. But Hina has her heart set on Ohio State University. Its published rate for in-state students is $13,152 a year, which includes room and board.

Hina is waiting to see what OSU will offer. But she's also a realist. To afford college, she'll probably have to work two jobs - one on campus, one off - in addition to taking out loans, she says.

She's not discouraged. With the optimism of youth, she believes in things working out. They always do.

"If I want to go there," Hina says, "I'll find a way to make it happen."

Email kgutierrez@enquirer.com




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