Forget Yale -- Go State

By Kathleen Day
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 28, 2007

College sophomore Carli McGoff could have attended the University of Maryland directly from high school, a decision her parents could afford and would have supported. But the Silver Spring resident opted instead to attend Montgomery College on a merit scholarship for two years and live at home.

Her parents calculate the decision to attend a two-year community college saved them $26,000, money her father Chris McGoff says will now help pay for her to graduate from a four-year institution -- she has applied to be accepted as a junior at Georgetown University, Gettysburg College and Franklin & Marshall College. Wherever she goes, she'll get a diploma at a deep discount from what four full years at any of those institutions costs.

"That's the idea," says McGoff, joking that he fears publicity will make the strategy so popular it will be harder for his three younger children to use. "I admit I had a stigma about community college. Not anymore."

As the price of college has skyrocketed, millions of middle- and upper-middle-class families like the McGoffs have juggled to find ways to keep pace. These families earn too much to qualify for need-based scholarships, but few can afford to spend tens of thousands of dollars a year without a significant hit to their finances.

Saving early, as soon as a child is born, is the obvious and best strategy. But financial planners and college experts say for those who couldn't or didn't save enough, there are many ways to ease the pain of paying for a higher education: pushing students to apply for merit awards, choosing less expensive schools, taking classes at community colleges, even beefing up IRA contributions to reduce the annual income admissions folks will use to calculate aid.

Financial advisers say crafting an effective strategy to pay for college requires three mindsets that some middle-class parents may find tough to embrace: being realistic about what your family can afford; being honest about what the goal of college is; and being willing to choose value over prestige.

"There's a feeling in the middle class that we want our kids to go to the very best school and that that means yearly expenses of about $40,000, no matter what," says Everette B. Orr, head of Orr Financial Planning in McLean. "I'm alarmed by the debt people take. They think everyone's doing it. They think it's normal -- parents and kids -- and it's not."

Saving Strategies

In the Washington region, many people who think of themselves as relatively well off feel the pinch. That's because higher-than-average living costs push the range of a middle-class income for a family of four to anywhere from $80,000 to $200,000, depending on many factors, such as the number of other family dependents, financial planners say.

In the past 10 years, tuition, fees and the cost of room and board have increased 31 percent at private four-year colleges and 42 percent at public four-year institutions, according to the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators. For the 2006-2007 academic year, for example, living on campus at a private university such as Georgetown costs more than $180,000 over four years. Four years on campus at a state school can also be daunting -- $68,000 over four years to attend the University of Virginia for state residents, $130,000 for out-of-state students.

Those spiraling costs mean parents ideally should start thinking about college when their children are born. The first step for parents is to agree on how much they're willing to pay: Should they foot the bill for everything or just tuition? Should the student be required to work or take on debt, or will her sole requirement be to perform academically? No matter what, financial advisers unanimously agree that parents should not shortchange their own retirement savings to help pay for a child's education -- parents who do will only end up a burden to their children in the end.

Robert Oshinsky, a government economist, and his wife, Stephanie Weinstein, a research scientist, agree that they want to save as much as they can now to eventually cover all the higher-education expenses for their two children, a 4-year-old girl and a 20-month-old son. Oshinsky says they set aside about $300 a month per child -- after saving for retirement -- and try to increase it by about 10 percent a year.

"We were both lucky to come out of undergraduate and graduate school without debt," says Oshinsky, who lives in Rockville. "We feel it's the responsibility of the parent to educate the child. Our parents helped us, and we're going to turn around and do the same for our kids."

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