It often comes down to money

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Disappointment was written across Candace Lunn's face. And not only hers. Thousands of high school seniors across America were wearing the same expression last month after learning how they fared in this year's college admissions sweepstakes.

But Lunn, an award-winning playwright at City College, was not downcast because she didn't get into New York University, her first choice. She did get in. So why the long face? Because more frustrating than an outright rejection from NYU was the school's financial aid package. It fell $13,000 a year short of covering the school's full annual tuition of about $34,000.

For Lunn, that gap -- even after NYU later agreed to reduce it by $5,000 -- might as well be in the millions of dollars. It is probably enough to keep NYU out of reach.

So, instead of anticipating four years in Greenwich Village, Lunn is trying to manufacture enthusiasm for her second choice, the honors program at the University of Maryland, which went much further than NYU in meeting her financial requirements.

Although most students focused during the past months on whether they would get into the college of their dreams, the more practical consideration for many -- or at least for their parents -- was whether there would be enough money to make the dream a reality.

Because of the astonishing rise in college tuition, financial aid, once considered a subordinate part of college admissions, has become every bit as significant as getting in.

Colleges have become far less passive about financial aid. Instead of relying on set formulas for deciding who gets the money, colleges are much more likely nowadays to use financial aid as a means of competing for the most desired students.

"The change has gone from financial aid playing a support role to now being a full-fledged partner in admissions," says Dan Lundquist, admissions dean at Union College in New York.

Some fear that this shift, coupled with federal policies, threatens to leave many of the most financially needy students without the resources to attend or succeed in college.

"You're taking funding away from kids who are very needy to try to get kids from Bethesda and Fairfax County who don't need it," says Howard Greene, a private college consultant who has written several guides on college admissions.

Essential factor

For those with modest means, financing has always been the essential factor in whether a college education was possible. But whereas working-class families might once have been called upon to make up a shortfall in the hundreds of dollars -- an amount that seemed doable -- nowadays, that gap can often be in an unbridgeable thousands of dollars, as it appears to be for Lunn, at least as far as NYU is concerned.

A congressional advisory panel warned recently that unless current trends are reversed, a college education will become less and less within reach of lower-income students during the next 15 years.

Lunn is one of three Baltimore-area high school students The Sun has followed over past months as they waged their campaigns for college entrance. Now that they have all received acceptances, they and their families are trying to figure out the next step: How to pay for it.

Drastic move

Their situations are diverse. Andy Spatz, an extroverted senior at Severna Park High School, is going to the University of Virginia. He is an out-of-state resident, so he and his family faced a yearly tuition of about $26,000, or $14,000 annually more than a student from Virginia would have to pay.

The Spatzes, whose family income is about $133,000, always assumed they would not qualify for financial aid. Nonetheless, because of their unusual circumstances, they have settled on a plan for drastically reducing their tuition costs in a way unthinkable for most families. They are moving to Virginia.

Spatz is an only child, so his parents don't face the prospect of uprooting younger children from their schools. What's more, as a military family -- Col. Michael Spatz is a physician in the Air Force -- they are accustomed to moving every few years. Andy Spatz's mother, Doris, gets restless when they don't move after three years.

Michael Spatz is stationed in Washington, so suburban Virginia is just as convenient to work as suburban Maryland. Doris Spatz is a travel consultant, and her expertise is portable.

What's more, because they are a military family, Virginia, like most other states, would waive the requirement that they live there a year before being recognized as residents qualifying for in-state tuition.

If the Spatzes relocate to Virginia in September as they now plan, the move will save them $49,000 over the course of their son's college years.

Kelly Kopeikin, student body president at McDonogh School, is heading in August for Davidson College, a private school near Charlotte, N.C. Her family does not enjoy anything like the advantages of the Spatzes. Still, the Kopeikins expect to benefit from the modest break often afforded families with two children in college at the same time.

Kelly's older brother, Carey, will be a junior at Swarthmore College when she enters Davidson. In his first two years, Swarthmore's financial aid package required the Kopeikins to contribute $17,000 a year toward his tuition.

With Kelly now going off to college too, Mario Kopeikin, their father, expects Swarthmore to reduce the family's burden to about $12,000 a year. That is also about what Davidson estimates it will require the Kopeikins to pay.

In effect, the two-kids-in-college break should save the Kopeikins about $30,000 between the two students.

Even so, Mario Kopeikin, who is in the textiles business, and his wife Linda, a sales representative for Johnson & Johnson, anticipate that college expenses will leave them with a debt approaching $100,000. Mario says the kids will be responsible for none of the loans.

"That's why my wife and I work," he said.

Impossibly high debt

That kind of debt is impossible for Lunn's family. Their annual income is about $23,000, most of it from Patricia Lunn's job as an assistant teacher at a school for the handicapped. Candace Lunn's father, Edward, is on disability. The Lunns knew from the start that if their daughter was going to be the first in the family to go to college, financial aid would have to cover almost the entire load.

A number of schools offered Lunn packages that did just that. Towson University offered to pay virtually the whole tab. Both the Johns Hopkins University and Goucher College would have paid all but about $2,000 a year. College Park left the family short by about $3,000, an amount that will likely be erased by a College Bound Foundation scholarship. (Brown University rejected her outright.)

And then there was NYU, her dream school, which initially left her with an impossible $13,000-a-year gap, far more than the federal government estimated the Lunns could pay. According to the federal formula, the Lunns could be expected to contribute $2,375 a year toward tuition.

"I guess I wanted them more than they wanted me," Lunn said shortly after getting NYU's financial proposal.

She asked her mother to call NYU to see whether more money were possible. It was a hard call for Patricia to make: "To me, it was like begging for something. That's not me. I'd do without first. But because of [Candace], I did it."

Patricia said the financial aid officer asked her how much more she felt she needed. She didn't feel comfortable suggesting an amount. "I said anything you give me would be appreciated." Within the week, NYU offered $5,000 a year more, which left a gap of $8,000 a year. It was still too much.

Patricia didn't try to negotiate further. She'd always been cool to the idea of the youngest of her four children being far from home. "I always wanted her to stay in Maryland," she said.

UMCP is second choice

With NYU out of the picture, Lunn chose College Park because she believed it was strongest in the two areas of study she wants to pursue: journalism and filmmaking.

Still, in the back of her mind, she hasn't given up on NYU. She has applied for outside scholarships. Lunn believes it's possible she can cobble together enough to still go to NYU in the fall. If not, perhaps she'll be able to transfer after her freshman year (although colleges are generally stingier with financial aid to transfers).

With NYU, Lunn was caught in a trap that has become increasingly prevalent in college admissions. Colleges will accept students and offer them financial aid, but far less than what the federal formula suggests the families need. The phenomenon is called "gapping," and it is used by colleges to influence who eventually matriculates at their schools.

As Gail Berson, dean of Admission and Student Financial Services at Wheaton College in Massachusetts, says, "Gapping follows the principle that some is better than none."

It enables schools to differentiate between kids it really wants, and those to whom it might be less committed, either because they aren't quite as strong academically or they don't greatly help the school meet the racial, geographic or talent diversity it is seeking at the moment.

Change in thinking

The schools know that many of those students will find the gap too large to close. Other kids might somehow come up with the money -- often sinking into debt. Either way, gapping represents new thinking in college admissions, replacing the old philosophy that a school would meet the full financial need of those it accepted.

A parallel trend is the increasing use of "merit scholarships" to attract the most desirable students. Merit scholarships have become an instrument schools use to compete for those high-quality students who wouldn't qualify for aid on the basis of need. Used wisely, merit scholarships can help a school raise the overall quality of its student body and climb in national rankings.

Wheaton has been pleased with the results. "A number of kids are drawn to the college who wouldn't otherwise be here," Berson says. "The only reason they come here is because I wave money in front of them. Wheaton can attract students who would otherwise be up the food chain."

"I see the look on the kids' faces," Berson adds. "They're thinking, 'Mom and Dad could pay for a marquee name, and yet if I have this scholarship offer, am I just being selfish?'"

Many schools insist that the increasing use of merit scholarships does not mean fewer students receive financial aid. A top-ranked school such as Rice University in Texas can offer merit scholarships to compete with Stanford for students without cutting financial aid dollars because it has a huge endowment. (Rice also charges a third less tuition than most of its peer institutions.)

The danger is at less well-endowed colleges. Ultimately, consultant Greene says, those schools will have to sacrifice financial aid dollars to merit scholarships.

Not all schools give merit scholarships. Ivy League schools do not. Yet even elite schools use financial aid to jockey with one another. This year, Princeton University announced it was eliminating student loans as part of its financial aid packages. Don Betterton, director of financial aid at the university, said the trustees were concerned about the staggering debts its students were incurring. By giving only grants, not loans, Princeton will save its financial aid students tens of thousands of dollars.

But Princeton also benefits. That savings could well give Princeton an edge as it battles Harvard, Yale and Massachusetts Institute of Technology for the best and the brightest. Some of those schools have reacted to the Princeton move by looking for ways to cut down on their student loans.

Financing as lure

While most schools can't afford to follow Princeton's lead, they still find ways to use financing as enticement.

Particularly effective are the public universities, including University of Maryland, that offer highly regarded honors programs. Those programs promise a level of education equal to the elite schools but at a much cheaper price. Kids who might otherwise go to "name" private schools instead opt for the public schools.

"Absolutely, we are getting those kids," says Fred Siegel, associate provost for enrollment services at the University of Delaware, which has an honors program. "Our tuition next year will be $13,800 vs. a private school in the mid-twenties [not including room and board, books and other miscellaneous costs]. So students here are already starting with a $12,000 scholarship. Beyond that, we offer merit scholarships in the range of $2,000 to $3,000."

It's not really the Ivies or the other top schools that are fretting about the inroads by the public universities. But plenty of other schools have reason to worry.

"Colleges seen as average or below average that don't have the recognition factor as elite schools are in a particularly disadvantageous position because they have to charge the same as the elite schools," says Greene.

"If parents are being asked to put out $20,000 to $35,000 a year, they want to believe they're getting true value for that commitment."

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