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Colleges offer grants, work-study to reduce students' debt

Several dozen colleges have financial aid policies that meet the full demonstrated need of some or all students, including Georgetown, the University of Richmond and Washington and Lee University in the mid-Atlantic region, as well as the University of Maryland, the University of Virginia and William and Mary.

Financial aid experts recognize a smaller group of about 50 colleges with aid pledges that minimize or eliminate loans in clearly worded pledges, such that a family can predict what the school will actually cost based on household earnings. Together, the schools serve about 8 percent of U.S. college students.

Thus, the Institute for College Access & Success recognizes aid pledges from U-Md., U-Va. and William and Mary but not from Georgetown, whose guarantee to meet full need includes an unspecified level of public and private student loans.

"We're highlighting these schools that have brought some transparencies to the process," Asher said.

The University of Maryland, whose full annual in-state cost averages about $22,000 in tuition, fees and living expenses, pledges to meet that figure through grant aid and work-study for students at the poverty level. The university also promises full grant aid for seniors once they have accumulated $15,900 in need-based loans, minus any other aid they have received.

Sarah Bauder, director of financial aid at U-Md., said she thinks the aid pledge is drawing more low-income students who might not have applied previously, "because they think they can't afford it." Bauder sends a letter to every high school principal in Maryland, every year, detailing the pledge.

Federal data suggest the aid pledges yield at least one consistent result: modest levels of student debt. A review of 2008 figures, the latest available, for eight colleges that serve Washington area students found that no more than about half of students graduated in debt. Average debt ranged from $12,859 at William and Mary to $25,586 at the University of Michigan, little more than the cost of a single year's education for an in-state student.

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