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Higher tuition, tight finances for students heading to college

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By KATHRYN FLAGG

ADDISON COUNTY — For Evan Olson, the hard part is over.

His decision is made, his deposit is in, and the Mount Abraham Union High School senior is heading off to the University of Vermont next year to study engineering.

This month many graduating students in Addison County and around the country are weighing decisions just like Olson’s: namely, where to attend college, now that acceptance letters from the country’s more than 4,000 schools have gone out, and just how to pay for it.

That last question is perhaps the most pressing one for families in an economic climate that has forced dwindling financial aid at some schools and belt-tightening for many families.

“We told our boys, ‘Work hard and we will make it happen,’” said Julie Olson, Evan’s mom. “We still feel the same, but we had no idea that colleges were going to be $50,000 a year and that we wouldn’t qualify for any financial aid.”

And the Olsons aren’t the only family crunching what in some cases can be the staggeringly high numbers associated with the cost of higher education. The Vermont Student Assistance Corporation is fielding 900 phone calls a day from students, families and recent graduates trying to juggle student loans. Applications for VSAC’s grant and scholarship programs were up between 7 and 10 percent this year.

“This year especially with the economic times and the recession, schools are not handing out any money,” said Julie Olson, a New Haven resident. “We were pretty flabbergasted that colleges weren’t offering anything.”

The Olsons are no greenhorns when it comes to college applications. Evan is the youngest of four Olson boys to head off to college. His brothers — now 26, 24 and 20 — enrolled at Clarkson University, the Rhode Island School of Design and the University of Notre Dame.

Julie Olson said that she and her husband were prepared for most of what lay ahead when they headed into the college hunt with their boys — just not for the sticker shock that popped up at the end.

“I don’t feel like we didn’t do our homework,” she said. “We just had no idea what the cost of education was. When I went to college, I went to a state school and I paid for it myself every semester. It was very different.”

FINANCING COLLEGE

Luckily, for families figuring out how to finance college in this day and age — be it for one child or four — there are some resources available to Vermonters.

Don Vickers, the president and CEO of VSAC, said his organization is primed and ready to help families sort through their options when it comes to paying for college.

“Our goal is to work with you and put together a plan that will get you through these difficult times,” Vickers said.

And it would seem that plenty of Vermonters are eager for that help. VSAC provides loans for Vermonters going to school anywhere in the world, and puts together about $400 million a year in loans for those students. The corporation also receives around 22,000 applications every year for grants and scholarships, most of them need-based.

Interest in the organization is definitely up because of the current financial climate, Vickers said. Families typically demonstrate more need for assistance these days. If companies aren’t firing workers, they might be cutting back employees’ hours, he said. Other families have seen savings disappear, or might not be able to get the home equity loan they were hoping to put toward paying for college.

VSAC is also hearing from students who’ve recently graduated but are having trouble making repayments on student loans because they haven’t found jobs yet.

But Vickers said VSAC is in a good position to help both current students and recent graduates — though the news isn’t all good. On the up side, VSAC can use forbearances to give students time to repay loans. Vickers also said that federal loans, like Stafford and PLUS loans, are still available, and interest rates are locked down.

But the bad news is that for students who need to borrow “above and beyond” federal loans to pay for college, alternative and private loans these days are proving very difficult to get. The loans that are available have interest rates that run anywhere from eight to 18 percent.

Anywhere from 10 to 15 percent of Vermonters, Vickers said, have to borrow private loans to pay for college.

ADVICE FOR PARENTS

Each of her boys was different, Julie Olson said, and that made the college application and decision process a little different each time around. But now, after ferrying four sons through the process, she said she and her husband do wish they’d done some things a little differently.

In retrospect, she said, she wishes she and her husband had perhaps split financial responsibility for the price tag of college with their sons, asking them to take on half the cost themselves. 

“We went in blind, and once you’re stepping into it, you can’t go back. You don’t want to make things different for kids,” Julie Olson said.

She recommended that parents reach out to VSAC for advice and information — but she also cautioned that no amount of advance preparation will eliminate what in the end is a waiting game.

“The reality of it is, until you actually apply to that college, you’re not going to know how the finances are going to impact you. Everybody gets their admission letter, but really the biggest thing is they’re waiting for that financial aid award,” she said. 

For the Olsons, the expected family contribution calculated by the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA, didn’t come close to matching up with the financial aid packages that schools offered — but Julie Olson recommended making a personal connection with the financial aid offices at a given school.

She said that once families do receive those financial aid award letters, they should be persistent, and consider writing a letter to the financial aid office explaining the family’s financial situation.

MORE ANXIETY

That’s translating into more phone calls, e-mails and letters at local financial aid offices, like the one at Middlebury College.

“What we’ve seen is much more anxiety (this year),” said Kim Downs, Middlebury’s senior director of student financial services. “We’re receiving so many more calls.”

(For more about Middlebury College, see the related story about admissions and financial aid at Middlebury this year.)

Julie Olson also recommended that students consider looking out of state.

“New England schools tend to be very expensive,” she said. “Broaden your horizon a bit.”

On the other hand, Evan Olson said his brothers reminded him, as he was making his college decision, that there are great options in his own backyard that might not be as expensive as heading across country to a private college.

In addition to UVM, Evan Olson was accepted at Indiana’s Purdue University and the University of Texas. He initially was thinking of heading out of state, and considered pursuing a degree in aeronautical engineering — but he ultimately decided that he didn’t want to rack up huge debts, and he wanted a broader degree that might translate into more job opportunities after school.

So he settled on UVM, where he plans to study mechanical engineering. The school “kind of gets a bad wrap” locally because it is the “local school,” Evan said, but he thinks it’s a good fit for him. He’ll keep his debt down, and he thinks the size of the school is perfect.

“UVM is big enough where I can kind of get lost but small enough where it’s personal,” he said.

Julie Olson said that she and her husband are incredibly proud of all of their sons, and that she knows they’re appreciative of the sacrifices their parents are making to send them to school.

But she worries about what the rising price of college, and the increasingly scarce financial aid, will mean for middle class students aiming for a top-notch education. And this year, more than any other before, she said the aid just wasn’t there — and colleges were open about the fact that aid “is what it is, and there is no negotiating it.”

That means tough decisions for families caught between qualifying for generous grants on one end of the spectrum, and being able to foot the whole price of school on the other.

“We want diversity in our colleges, and we want diversity in our work environment,” said Julie Olson. But right now, she said, “Only the rich can go to college, or only the poor. The middle class is out of luck.”

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