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.
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."
Visitors to the University of Massachusetts Boston campus are asking a lot more money questions this year, says student tour guide Meaghan Tighe. "Even if it's not tuition, it's 'Do I have to pay for heat and hot water?… How much do I have to pay for lab fees?' " As someone who transferred from a public university out of state, she can relate to the desire to avoid hefty tuition fees. "When you're spending so much money just going to school … you don't get to join clubs or study abroad," she says.
A recent open house at UMASS Boston drew 10 percent more people than last year, says Lisa Johnson, associate vice chancellor for enrollment management. Families who usually focus only on private colleges in the area are now considering public schools, she says. "They really are able to see the value."
Ms. Johnson touts the university's small classes and says more Harvard-educated professors teach here than at any school other than Harvard – all for about $9,000 a year for tuition and fees.
That's a big part of the appeal for people taking a tour at the sun-dappled campus center overlooking the ocean.
Ayo Yayo, a Boston native, is considering transferring to UMASS after 2-1/2 years at nearby Northeastern University, a private school with a sticker price of about $45,000 a year for tuition and room and board.
Even with a substantial scholarship and financial aid, he and his family have taken out loans, he says. "My father, he's a real estate broker, and you know, with the market struggling as it is … I just felt that I needed to make a change." He still intends to work, possibly full time, while in school.
But if students limit their search to public universities, they might miss great opportunities, Mr. Sapp of Claremont McKenna says. "[As private colleges], we know we have to have significant financial aid budgets or we're just not going to be an appealing option."
Uncertainty over the future value of college endowments and other sources of financial aid makes families cautious. Mr. Begin has scholarships at his current private university, his mother says, but "we can't help but wonder if those would decrease. Colleges invest as well … and [now] they have less money to spread around."
College-admissions counselors say it's too early to speculate what schools' endowment situations will be when financial aid packages are offered next year.
It is clear that many colleges are under more pressure to cut costs. Boston University, which is private, recently announced a hiring freeze and a pause on new construction plans. Public higher education systems in Massachusetts and a number of other states are facing the loss of more than 5 percent of state funding. But leaders of both private and public institutions in Massachusetts have said they'll find cuts that don't directly affect core functions and financial aid.
For high school seniors like KC Martin of Englewood, Colo., even a four-year public university feels out of reach. She says she'll probably go to a community college, a decision she reached with her parents. "It's a tough one, because I want to go to a four-year school, but it's expensive," she says.
Community colleges typically swell during economic downturns, but with the financial crisis and the loss of state revenues, it will be daunting for some to accommodate what could be unprecedented demand, says Norma Kent, spokeswoman for the American Association of Community Colleges in Washington. Without funding to hire more faculty or build labs, "there's a de facto cap," she says, despite their mission to be accessible to everyone.