The great college aid game: Five seniors juggle desire and reality

As this school year's great college aid game gets started, the Monitor and The Hechinger Report follow five New Rochelle High School seniors in their quest through the labyrinth of college admissions and financial aid.

Ann Hermes / Staff
Margaret Doherty (l.) and her daughter Haleigh Doherty (second from l.), speak to a financial aid representative during a visit to Saint Michael's College in Colchester, Vermont.
Ann Hermes/Staff
Adaugo Ezike (center) took part in Columbia University's State Pre-College Enrichment Program (S-PREP) last month in New York City. A student at New Rochelle (N.Y.) High School, she wants to study engineering in college, as her two older brothers have done.

This is the first article in a series following five New Rochelle High School seniors on their quest for college financial aid. The project is a partnership between the Monitor and The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, nonpartisan education-news outlet affiliated with Teachers College, Columbia University

December is a tense month for college-bound seniors at New Rochelle High School in suburban New York. A few who have applied through early decision programs could soon learn whether they have been accepted or rejected to their dream schools. Others are rushing to complete their applications, most of which must be in by the end of the year. At that point, their fate will be in the hands of an army of admissions officers.

Then, there’s nothing left to do but wait…and hope.

QUIZ: What do you know about student loans and college finance?

Michael Kenny, the school’s veteran guidance coordinator, says college anxiety hits its peak around the same time that the leaves begin to fall: the last week in October.

That’s when seniors have to buckle down and make sure they’ve got the right mix on their lists: “reach” schools where admission is far from certain, match schools where their grades and test scores are within the average range of entering freshmen, and safety schools where their chances of getting in are high.

The tension continues until students have pressed “send” on their last applications. “You’re looking forward to the first semester of senior year being a celebration and it’s such a stressor,” Mr. Kenny says.

During this school year, the Monitor – in partnership with The Hechinger Report – will follow five New Rochelle seniors as they figure out what college they’ll attend and wrestle with an even more difficult question: How they’re going to pay for it.

Tuition at the most expensive private four-year colleges is now close to $50,000 a year and that doesn’t include room and board. Public universities can be pricey as well. That’s why the amount that students borrow has been steadily climbing for more than a decade. A study released Dec. 4 by the nonprofit Project on Student Debt found that 71 percent of students who graduated from four-year colleges in 2012 had student loans averaging $29,400.

In New Rochelle, an ethnically and economically diverse city just north of the Bronx, money is on the minds of most college-bound seniors. Along with the applications, families must negotiate the labyrinth of government financial aid, scholarships, and private loans. Their choices are a sometimes painful balance of desire and reality.

Haleigh Doherty: Loans a must for fourth child

Haleigh Doherty’s parents saved up to send each of her three older siblings to college, but had to start over again after each graduated. “It’s not like there was a college fund for me all my life,” says Haleigh, 17.

Her mother, Margaret, a teacher, has already told Haleigh that she will have to take out loans. When Haleigh was compiling her list of schools, she made sure that her grade point average of 99 put her in the top range of each college’s successful applicants to increase her odds of getting merit aid, scholarships based on a student’s academic ability rather than simply financial need. (New Rochelle uses a 1 to 100, so Haleigh is in the top 10 percent of her class.)

By mid-November, she had applied to to four New England schools: Providence College, Fairfield University, Sacred Heart University and the University of Vermont along with Fordham University in New York. She wants to be a teacher, so she picked schools with strong education programs. Most are Catholic institutions because religion is an important part of her life.

All the schools on her list are also within driving distance of New Rochelle. When Haleigh was in 10th grade, her father, Brian, a purchasing director, was diagnosed with lung cancer. At the time of his diagnosis, the doctor said he might live five more years. Whatever happens, Haleigh doesn’t want to be too far away from home.

Esteban Acevedo: His mom cried on hearing he was a scholarship finalist 

Esteban Acevedo came to this country a little more than four years ago from his native Colombia. His father was the first to head north a decade ago. When Esteban, now 17, and his mother and younger sister, Anna, 14, joined him, the adjustment was rough. They initially stayed in a family friend’s garage on Long Island where, Esteban says, “the schools were good but the garage was not very comfortable for four people.”

Moving to an apartment in New Rochelle was a huge improvement. His father now works as a porter in New York, and his mother is a home attendant. Both parents attended university in Colombia, but Esteban’s father, who had been studying computer science, dropped out because of the uncertain political situation in the country during the mid-1980s. “I feel that he regrets not finishing,” Esteban says. His mother graduated with a nursing degree.

After initially struggling to learn in his new language, Esteban has done well. He wants to be a doctor, and hopes to major in biology or biochemistry. His grade point average is 100.55 (the school’s point system allows for higher than 100 GPA because it gives extra weight for honors or Advanced Placement courses) and he’s president of the school’s chapter of the National Honor Society, among other activities. With that record, he’s applying to highly selective schools, including the University of Chicago, the Ivy League schools University of Pennsylvania, Brown, and Columbia along with some public universities.

In late October, Esteban learned he was a finalist for a scholarship program called QuestBridge, which matches low-income students with colleges. He texted his mother to tell her, and when she called him back a few minutes later, she was crying. Last week, Esteban found out he didn’t win a full scholarship in that early round, but he’s hoping for better news soon. “I’m staying positive,” he says.

Matisse Clayton: The oldest child is 'guinea pig' in their race for aid 

Life for Matisse Clayton’s family revolves around her father’s restaurant, Alvin & Friends, in downtown New Rochelle. Her father (he’s the Alvin in the restaurant’s name) works so hard, she says, “sometimes I won’t see him all week,” so her mother has been more involved in her college applications.

Matisse, 17, is the oldest of three and says she’s the “guinea pig” in her family. If she gets into a good school, then there’s hope for her younger brother and sister. But she’s frustrated by what she thinks is an arbitrary selection process. She has applied early to Georgetown University along with one of her close friends, who, Matisse says, has a similar academic record and activities. How does a college choose? She should find out in the next week whether either has been accepted.

If the answer is no, Matisse is prepared. Her long list includes 11 schools, some public and some private. Among them is a late addition, the University of Southern California, her mother’s alma mater. For much of the fall, her mother had told her to stick to schools within five hours of home by car or plane. Matisse was thrilled when her mother finally relented because she has relatives in California.

Matisse’s family income is too high to qualify her for the application fee waiver offered by many colleges. She estimates she has spent more than $1,000 so far, which, she says, “is a lot without a guarantee of acceptance.” But she wants choices. “The worst nightmare,” she says, “is applying to 10 schools and not getting into any of them, or getting into only one and it’s not the one you want to go to.”

Adaugo Ezike: Admission to a top college is a family agenda

When Adaugo Ezike’s oldest brother, Jide, 19, was accepted to Carnegie Mellon University, her father, George, said he felt like he had won the lottery. Then the next brother, Kayode, 17, got into MIT. “That was like winning the Mega Lottery,” says George Ezike, who has a civil service job in New York City. Now, it’s Adaugo’s turn and the Ezike family’s hopes are high.

Adaugo, 16, is a top student with a grade point average of 100.12 and strong SAT scores. She wants to study engineering like her brothers and is applying to nearly a dozen schools, including Columbia, Yale, and the University of Pennsylvania. Several schools have offered her application fee waivers, which are welcome because the family already spends about $20,000 a year on education for the two older siblings.

Getting the kids into a top college has always been high on the family agenda. When Jide was looking at schools, her parents – who both attended university in their native Nigeria – made all the kids come along just to let them know what they were working for.

Kayode and Adaugo also took part in a program at Columbia called S-PREP that helps academically talented minority students prepare for college and careers in medicine and science. Adaugo says the program has reinforced her already strong interest in research. One possible topic: how music affects the brains of people with autism. Adaugo’s youngest brother, Dioka, 14, has autism and Adaugo says, “He loves music. If you play music for him, he’s in another world.”

Her older brothers received generous scholarships, and Adaugo hopes to as well. But her father also wants her to take out a loan, as her brothers have, to develop a sense of financial responsibility. “It inspires you to work a little harder to graduate and get that degree and actually pay it off,” she says.

Camille N’Diaye-Muller: Full ride Princeton scholarship in the bag, but still more choices to make 

Camille N’Diaye-Muller’s family is small – just her mother, her older sister, and her. Her parents separated when she was three and she has no contact with her father. Her sister Ella, 19, applied to several private colleges but didn’t get enough money, and in late spring of her senior year, applied to Hunter College, part of the City University of New York system, where she is now a sophomore. Camille is determined to do better.

With stellar grades (a grade point average of 101.2) and top test scores (2230 on her SATs), she’s aiming at the most selective schools in the country and would like to study international law.

Paying for that education is definitely a major issue. Her mother, who is French and Senegalese, is a public school teacher in the Bronx. “My mom will not let me take out loans,” she says. “She doesn’t want me to be indebted because of my education.”

QUIZ: What do you know about student loans and college finance?

Like Esteban, Camille is a QuestBridge finalist. Earlier this month, she found out she had been awarded a full four-year scholarship to Princeton through the program. That would have been enough for most seniors, but Camille is still waiting to hear from Yale and finishing up her application to Harvard. She hasn’t seen Princeton, which is about a two-hour drive from her home, and, she says, “I want to keep my options open.”

This project is a partnership between the Monitor and The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, nonpartisan education-news outlet affiliated with Teachers College, Columbia University.© 2014 The Christian Science Monitor and the Hechinger Report.

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