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Students eye cheaper colleges as crisis deepens

Nearly 6 in 10 are considering less prestigious schools in order to trim costs, a survey finds.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / October 23, 2008

Crunch time: Ayo Yayo (foreground), on a campus tour at the University of Massachusetts Boston, is considering transferring in to cut tuition costs. Dylan Begin (center) is also considering transferring in from a private school, which would reduce college loans, says his mother, Alice Gentili (right).

Sarah Beth Glicksteen/The Christian Science Monitor

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The nation's financial crisis is forcing college students and college applicants to take a long, hard look at what they can afford and what value they place on investing in higher education.

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For some, college will now have to be a dream deferred. Others are adjusting their dream to trim costs.

Dylan Begin started college this fall at a private university in Washington, D.C. Now, the Worcester, Mass., resident is considering in-state public universities for the spring. "Having gone to the private school – and I was paying a solid chunk of change – I've just been sort of thinking a lot and comparing what I actually get for that," he says during a recent tour of the University of Massachusetts, Boston.

His mother, Alice Gentili, says she's relieved he's weighing a move because he and the family would have big loans if he stays where he is. "If he could come to one of the UMASSes, it's so much less expensive and he doesn't have the pressure" of having to have a campus job, she says.

Admissions counselors are hearing many similar stories. The economic turmoil "is forcing a lot of kids and parents to have some very substantial conversations about the financial impacts of going to college," says Bill McClintick, president of the National Association for College Admission Counseling in Arlington, Va.

Nearly 60 percent of 2,500 high school seniors were considering a less prestigious college for affordability reasons, according to an early October survey by scholarship-search website MeritAid.com. Also, 14 percent of the seniors changed their focus to a two-year college and 16 percent put their college searches on hold.

Families are revising their lists – adding cheaper options or even eliminating all but the in-state public schools, according to college-admission counselors. They say students are considering community colleges months earlier than is typical. And questions about financial aid are flowing in from those who never needed to think about it before.

There was a time when Sally Rubenstone, a Massachusetts-based senior adviser with counseling service College Confidential, would see people roll their eyes as she advised putting a "financial safety school" on their list. Not this year. "With uncertainty in the stock market ... [families] are compiling almost two separate lists – one that's viable if the market bounces back, and the other one that's based more on bad news," she says.

Admissions staffs see nervousness about not just tuition but also tangential costs. At a recent college fair in Greenwich, Conn., a mother and daughter approached the table for Claremont McKenna College. When the mom realized it was in California, "she said, 'We're having enough trouble financing the education these days, I don't think we really want to worry about all the plane tickets,' " says associate dean of admission Adam Sapp. "I definitely didn't hear that last year."

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