Many of the high school students at Baltimore's Festival Hall pondered the same question yesterday: How can people afford the cost of a higher education when it runs as high as $24,000 per year at private institutions?
"I'm trying to find a place that I can afford," said Jim Bright, a 17-year-old senior at Catonsville High School.
"It's expensive. I think I'm going to have to get a loan if I'm going to go to college. I don't know why it costs so much."
Mr. Bright was one of 5,000 high school students from around the state who attended yesterday's kickoff of the 18th annual National College Fair. Recruiters from 280 colleges are attending the two-day convention, and some 10,000 students are expected.
With aisles of small booths and college representatives, students collected colorful brochures and college applications.
But the gloss of a college experience was quickly wiped out by concerns over how to finance the courses.
The College Board reported last month that tuition and fees at public four-year institutions increased by 10 percent this fall.
The average cost of tuition and fees at a four-year public school is $2,315, a figure that increases to $5,841 when room and board are included.
It was the second consecutive year that the College Board reported a double-digit average increase. (Last fall's increase was 13 percent.) At the same time, financial aid rose less than 8 percent, the College Board reported.
More and more students have been forced to borrow money to go to college -- loans now make up 50 percent of financial aid used by students, according to statistics of the Department of Education.
The fair is sponsored by the National Association of College Admissions Counselors and is aimed at giving students a chance to talk with professionals about their goals.
Counselor Clarice Wheatley directed students to seek many options when choosing a college and career.
"The first thing students want to know is how to get free money," said Ms. Wheatley, a counselor with the Maryland Educational Opportunity Center.
"Even though these are children, they understand that money is tight. I advise them that they have to be realistic and cost-conscious."
Yesterday, many students expressed an interest in Maryland colleges such as Towson State, Morgan State and Frostburg State universities, Ms. Wheatley said.
Those institutions are bargains compared with some private schools, even though state budget shortages are causing across-the-board tuition increases.
At Frostburg State, it costs $6,200 per year for tuition, fees and room and board, said Wray Blair, assistant director of admissions.
The Frostburg State booth attracted more than 500 students during a three-hour period yesterday morning, Mr. Blair said.
"We're economical and we give them an in-state cost, but away from home," Mr. Blair said. "Money seems to be a question that always comes up. They are braced for a huge number. They are concerned about it no matter what, whether they are students from a public or private high school, it doesn't matter."
Regina Bello, a mother of seven who lives in Timonium, attended the fair with her daughter Regan, a 16-year-old junior at Dulaney High School.
Mrs. Bello said she and Regan are starting a college search early with hopes that she can win a lacrosse scholarship.
"We've been told not to worry about the cost of schools, to apply to the school that is best suited to your needs," Mrs. Bello said.
Representatives from other colleges around the country fielded questions about the hot new major: science and technology. Some colleges relied on sports programs and reputations to draw interested students.
Bob Merritt is director of admissions at Jacksonville University, a tiny liberal arts institution in Jacksonville, Fla., that costs $13,400 per year. Mr. Merritt said his university started a lacrosse program five years ago to attract students from the Northeast.
California University of Pennsylvania, located in California, Pa. -- 35 miles south of Pittsburgh -- relied to some extent on its unusual name to attract students to strong programs in education and technology that cost about $10,238 per year.
The $16,849 for tuition, room and board at Fairleigh Dickinson University prompted recruiter Helen James to say that only students who were serious about attending an out-of-state university would be interested in her small college.
"Most people can come up with 20 colleges that their sons or daughters could go to," said Robert Levine, chairman of the college fair and assistant principal at Baltimore Polytechnic Institution. "The function of the college fair is exposure. Here's an opportunity for parents and kids to see 300 schools at once."