Choosing a college and paying the bill; Tuition: High school seniors face a changing world of forms and formulas in their high-stakes effort to win financial aid.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Now is the season of the FAFSA and the Profile, of the Stafford and the Perkins, of the Pell and the PLUS. Gibberish to most, these are familiar terms to parents and students engaged in the annual ritual of seeking financial aid for higher education.

"It's a little stressful," says Anne Rossi of Baltimore, the mother of a Notre Dame Preparatory High School senior who applied to 11 colleges. "And I taught math for 20 years and always do my own income taxes."

For parents of college-bound students, it's crunch time. Acceptance and financial aid offers have begun to trickle from schools across the country. The flood comes in April. Rossi's daughter Katie has heard from some schools and nervously awaits a complex, potentially costly decision.

"This has been the greatest stress of my senior year," says Katie. "I hate it. There are so many forms, it's like a big maze."

Driven by a variety of economic, demographic and legal pressures, the financial aid world has changed drastically in the past decade. For many it now looks like a big casino, with the payoffs as mystifying as the bounce of dice on a craps table.

"The changes in the competitive environment mean that the financial aid offers a family receives can vary significantly from one college to another," says Robert Massa, dean of enrollment at the Johns Hopkins University.

One result is a mini-industry of advisers, books, magazines and Web sites, many promising to unlock the door to untold riches.

'We will work with you'

But, says Jean Narcum, director of financial aid at Washington College in Chestertown: "There is no secret. You fill out the forms, they are not that complicated, and you get your expected annual contribution. We will work with you to figure out how to meet that."

The process involves a lot of forms and inevitable acronyms, starting with the FAFSA -- Free Application for Federal Student Aid -- a sort of mini-Form 1040 tax return that's used for all federal programs.

The Profile, a service of the College Board, garners more information for schools that want it. Some schools ask for tax returns.

PLUS stands for loans to parents. Stafford and Perkins are student loan programs, Pell grants are for low-income students, all federal programs named after legislators.

They help pay for school costs that continue to grow.

Hopkins recently announced a 4.3 percent tuition increase, to $23,660 a year. Other elite schools had similar jumps -- 3.5 percent at Duke and Dartmouth, 3.3 percent at Harvard, 4.3 percent at Stanford -- all more than double the rate of inflation. Schools with lesser reputations still have tuitions that approach, or surpass, $20,000.

With such prices appearing out of the reach of even relatively well-off families -- making the low cost of state institutions more attractive -- financial aid is no longer just a matter of meeting students' needs. More than ever, schools are using merit aid -- money given to high-achieving students -- to sculpt their classes.

"Sometimes I am surprised when I hear what a college is offering a student," says Kevin Covaney, director of admissions at Washington College. "But you have to take in account each school's needs. One might need female physicists while another will need something else."

Katie Rossi is the type of student most colleges covet. She scored a combined 1,350 on her SATs, putting her in the top 5 percent. Her high school grade-point average is 3.75, with plenty of honors and Advanced Placement courses.

Goucher College has said she would get a $10,000 scholarship and is a finalist for a full tuition grant. She has been accepted into honors programs at the University of Maryland, College Park, Towson University, Salisbury State University and Loyola College. Towson has offered full tuition. She is waiting to hear about money from the others.

Word should come by April 1 from Georgetown, Virginia, Richmond, Bucknell, Franklin and Marshall and American.

Money will "be the deciding factor," Katie says. She plans to attend law school, so she doesn't want to be burdened by loans from her undergraduate years.

How to decide

Many applicants end up turning down schools that best fit their academic and social needs for the one that comes out best on the bottom line.

"I'm concerned that some students making their decisions on the basis of these scholarship offers aren't choosing the school that's right for them," says Hopkins' Massa.

The situation was different 20 years ago. Then, Hopkins was in a group of elite colleges that shared information about their common applicants. The offers students received from those colleges rarely varied.

The idea was that the student's choice should not be made on the basis of money. Merit aid, if there was any, was generally a small honorarium.

That began to change in the 1980s as the last of the baby boomers made their way through college.

Loyola College in Maryland was among the first in the nation to act. Then mainly a commuter school, it had to go farther afield for students. And it attracted them with a merit aid program that greatly expanded in 1982. Many other schools followed suit, fighting for the best and the brightest of the shrinking pool of students.

Now, more than 200 of Loyola's 900 freshmen will receive some sort of merit aid that generally goes to those with combined SAT scores of more than 1,350 and a 3.7 high school grade-point average.

"You have to keep up with the competition," says William Bossemeyer, Loyola's director of admissions.

Goucher has a similar program that targets applicants with SATs over 1,200. At Washington College, every member of a high school National Honor Society admitted for the past three years has received $40,000 over four years -- half of its tuition. Half its freshman classes are made up of honor society members.

Even public schools heavily use merit scholarships. At the University of Maryland, Baltimore County -- where federal programs account for $21 million in aid -- the school hands out $5 million in merit scholarships, compared with $1.3 million in need-based grants.

Generally, the more prestigious the school, the fewer its merit scholarships. But after a Justice Department investigation into collusion on pricing concluded with a 1991 agreement breaking up the sharing of financial aid information, they began to compete for students.

At Hopkins, a few students get merit money, but an increasing number get what officials describe as "merit within need."

Under that program -- similar to ones used by other selective schools -- the top 10 percent of the 400 incoming Hopkins freshmen this year who are eligible for aid get their entire need amount met with grants and work-study jobs, so they will have no loans to repay. The next 30 percent get $2,500 per year in grants instead of loans.

But no school in Maryland seems to have gone the way of some across the country -- encouraging prospective students to communicate their best financial aid offer and then engaging in bargaining.

"That doesn't seem like a good approach because it rewards the squeaky wheel," says Loyola's Bossemeyer.

'Distasteful'

David W. Breneman, dean of the school of education at the University of Virginia, calls such bargaining "distasteful" and "an odd way to begin a relationship with someone you hope will have a lifelong commitment to your institution."

Iowa-based consultant Thomas Mortensen, who publishes a newsletter on access to higher education, says his concern is that all the changes are aimed at the middle class, not the neediest: "This money isn't being used to get more people into college."

But Breneman, a former college president, says institutions have little choice. "In the current environment, I don't see any way around it. For some, it's a matter of survival."

With a top student such as Katie, Anne Rossi is clearly benefiting. Still, she has doubts.

"When I see something like that $10,000 offer from Goucher, I realize that there are essentially two levels of tuition there," she says.

"It would make more sense just to charge everybody a reasonable price in the first place."

Pub Date: 3/17/99

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