To Nancy Ramirez, getting accepted at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge was a dream come true. But its $30,000-plus cost dwarfed the Georgia Institute of Technology, her economic "safety school."
"I'm kinda scared about graduating college with a debt so high," the high-schooler wrote in an e-mail plea last spring to an audience of Internet news-group users.
Like millions of other would-be college freshmen, Ms. Ramirez and her parents were faced with a confusing thicket of scholarship, financial aid, and loan options. And the sky-high cost. "If anyone is going through the same situation, and found the solution please e-mail me to see how you managed," she wrote.
To such cries for help, Stanley Ikenberry, president of the Washington-based American Council on Education, has a message he concedes many may not believe: College costs much less than most think - about $10,000 less. And that's before financial aid is added.
Survey shows knowledge gap
"We did a survey that found an alarming knowledge gap between what the public knew about higher education and the reality," he says. "We have a job to do helping them understand options and costs."
To battle ignorance about costs that might keep students from attending college, the council - a lobby group for 1,200 US colleges and universities - this month launched its "College Is Possible" campaign.
Some surveyed by the council thought tuition at an average, public four-year university was $20,000 when it was less than half that amount, he says. Others thought financial aid went only to athletes or top scholars - when 70 percent of students get financial aid. About $60 billion in aid was available last year.
But critics think the ACE campaign may deflect attention from legitimate public concerns about still-rising college tuition. The College Board reported this month that tuition and fees for 1998-99 rose about 4 percent over last year - about twice the rate of inflation. Average tuition, fees, room, and board for four-year private schools rose $913 to $20,273. For four-year public schools it rose $304 to $7,773.
Jay Dikey, a spokesman for the House Education and Workforce Committee, which oversees federal education and aid programs, says the council's campaign misses a key point. "The vast majority of colleges and universities have been too slow to rein in costs," he says. "We are going to see Congress say, 'What gives? Are we going to have to impose cost controls?'"
Anthony Samu, president of the United States Student Association in Washington, questions whether the public is as misinformed as the council seems to believe.
What about student debt?
As he sees it, rising student-debt levels are being overlooked in the campaign. The proportion of graduates who owe $20,000 or more rose to 19 percent from 9 percent between 1993 and 1996, according to a General Accounting Office report. Sixty percent of all aid was loans.
"It seems more a public-relations campaign than addressing the issue of whether college is truly accessible for low-income and first-generation students," Mr. Samu says of the council's campaign. "For these people a $3,000 gap - after aid and grants - is often insurmountable."
For Nancy Ramirez, things worked out. She got aid - though her parents must still stretch to pay.
That leaves others wondering if someone will help them. "Send me all the information regarding grants or low-rate scholarships," wrote one e-mail sender. "My parents are dirt poor."
* 'College Is Possible' Web site: www.collegeispossible.org or call 1-800-433-3243