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Amy's Choice

By Paula Span
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 25, 1999

It's Stressful
Is It Worth It?
The Decision
From middle school on, she was drilled in the importance of grades, AP courses, essays, transcripts. What no one ever mentioned, that she can recall, was money

A memory from Amy Franklin's past: She was in the family room, playing Monopoly with her girlfriend Kimberly, talking about the future. They were in sixth grade then, a time when kids start to grasp that "astronaut," "movie star" and "world-famous athlete" are no longer wholly acceptable responses to what-do-you-want-to-be-when-you-grow-up but have yet to pay much attention to phrases like graduate degree. "My goal is to have children, and maybe go to a community college," Amy recalls her friend saying. Kimberly was not the highly academic type. "And I was like, 'I think I want to go to Harvard,' " says Amy, who was.

Who knows where an 11-year-old in braces even encounters the name of a prestigious private university 450 miles away? The point is, she was urged all her young life to excel in school. When she was in seventh grade, her parents enrolled her in an enrichment program for gifted students called the Center for Talented Youth. By eighth grade, school officials were warning that colleges might look at even junior-high grades and that those transcripts had better gleam. Franklin, a serious young woman with wide dark eyes in a guileless face, was paying at tention; the applications she mailed to five colleges last winter were impressive: a 3.87 average at Arlington's Yorktown High School, a raft of Advanced Placement courses, SATs in the high 1400s, a well-crafted essay that sounded a personal note yet avoided self-indulgence . . .

What no one ever mentioned, that she can recall, was money. The climbing costs of higher education, the ins and outs of financial aid, the prospect of beginning adult life with a bachelor's degree and a five-figure debt – none of it came up. "I thought, you get good grades, you go to a good college," Franklin says simply. "I never thought, you get good grades and then you can't."

Not until her senior year, as she was frantically assembling the paperwork, did Bonnie and Al Franklin raise the subject of finances. By that time Amy had decided that she wanted a career in the Foreign Service and therefore – according to the combination of research, hearsay and gut response that tends to inform college decisions – that she ought to enroll in the respected international relations program at Tufts University in Medford, Mass. (price tag for the coming academic year, including tuition and fees, room and board, and books: $32,676). Georgetown ($32,858), with its School of Foreign Service, was her second choice.

The senior Franklins – he's 74, a retired government lawyer; she's eligible to retire from the IRS – were startled. They have a comfortable income – too comfortable, at roughly $150,000 a year, to qualify for financial aid based on need – but they live modestly. A three-bedroom brick condo in Fairlington Village. Two 10-year-old cars. No elaborate vacations, pricey wardrobes or personal trainers. No debts, except for the mortgage, and no enthusiasm for incurring any. And – after paying steep taxes, shelling out for health insurance and for an upcoming double retirement – no six-figure savings account earmarked for tuition payments. As much as they want the very best education for their talented only child, they somehow always assumed she'd acquire it at one of Virginia's well-regarded public schools: the University of Virginia ($9,550) or William and Mary ($10,207) or – Amy's "safety" – James Madison University ($9,858).
For more information on financing college, contact:

Sallie Mae's College Answer Service at 1-800-891-4599 (counselors can answer individual questions and will also send a copy of the free booklet "Paying for College") or

College Is Possible, a campaign of the Coalition of America's Colleges and Universities, at 1-800-433-3243 (ask for a resource guide) or

The College Board at


"A state school is $1,000 a month. You can do that by cutting back on things, without draining your finances too much," Bonnie Franklin reasons. "To go to either Tufts or Georgetown . . . that's $3,000 a month!" What even upper-middle-class family can write that large a check every 30 days for four years? She wants Amy to have whatever she yearns for, but can't help wondering: "Would the degree be worth that much money?"

They had The Talk last winter, as Amy was cranking out her applications. It drained some of the excitement from the process, and Amy began to half-hope that Tufts would reject her and take matters out of her hands. But by early April, she had a predicament that lots of her peers would envy: All her envelopes were fat ones. She allowed herself the kick of reading the acceptance letters aloud, savoring each Congratulations and We are pleased to welcome you. And then she began to consider, with some guilt, whether she should choose the school that most appealed to her and would cause her parents the greatest fiscal pain. Her parents asked her to "keep a very open mind about state schools"; she promised she would.

So here she is in her bedroom – a reminder, with its white eyelet pillowcases and shelves of stuffed animals (pandas are her favorites) and stacks of college brochures, that childhood and maturity are intermingled at 17. She's feeling considerable pressure. Over the next two weeks of spring she and her parents will attend a round of campus open houses – Amy's never actually seen Tufts, it turns out, or even crossed the river to visit Georgetown – and then they'll decide.

"I've started to have headaches," she confides. "We actually went to the eye doctor to see if it was related to that. But it wasn't. I think it's just stress."

Of course it's stressful. The true cost of college has been exaggerated somewhat by scare stories highlighting the dizzying sums charged by a relative handful of private schools; it's useful to keep in mind that nearly three-quarters of students at four-year colleges are paying less than $8,000 a year for tuition. But the trends are daunting nonetheless.

In the past 20 years, statistics from the College Board show, the increases in college prices, both public and private, have far outstripped both the modest rises in family income and the inflation rate. The share of family income required to pay for higher education, while naturally a greater burden for the less privileged, has jumped for everyone: In 1978, a middle-income family spent 12 percent of its annual income to send a child to a four-year public college, and 26 percent for a private college. Last year, that family would have spent 17 percent of its income for a public school and an intimidating 44 percent for a private one.

"It comes down to: Does this family want to make this kind of commitment?" says Joyce Smith, executive director of the National Association for College Admission Counseling. "A lot of folks are angsting about this now."

Part of their angst is the shifting nature of financial aid, which has risen significantly. The catch is that in the 1970s, most financial aid came in the form of grants, which don't have to be repaid. "Over time, it's all turned upside down," says Jack Joyce, manager of communications and training at the College Board. "Now 60 percent of financial aid comes in the form of loans and 40 percent in grants . . . Some of those families who do qualify for financial aid will be surprised to see that it begins with an L."

The opportunity to go into hock doesn't really sound like "aid" to most parents, but graduates of four-year public colleges now shoulder an average of $8,000 to $10,000 in debt – and that's just what the kids owe; the parents may well have borrowed in addition. At private colleges, the average graduate's IOU is an even heftier $16,000 to $18,000.

Faced with these realities – reminiscent of those scary charts showing how much you have to start saving at 23 in order to be able to retire – families tend to shrug and think about something less overwhelming. What they don't do is save systematically. A 1997 study by Sallie Mae, the largest U.S. service for student loans, found that only 17 percent of parents whose children would be entering college in three years had saved half or more of what they'd need. Twenty-two percent had saved nothing.

So the Franklins, to the chorused dismay of people who work in higher education, are fairly typical. "I spent a dozen years sitting behind the desk as a director of financial aid," the College Board's Jack Joyce laments, "and it was somewhere between surprising and frustrating to see the number of families just beginning to think about this when the son or daughter was in the senior year of high school."

But then, the whole subject of paying for college provokes a welter of anxiety and irrationality. Parents worry endlessly about affording college – it's their second greatest concern after illegal drugs, according to an American Council on Education survey published last year. But as the same study points out, the public actually overestimates the price by a considerable amount. Which partly explains why most respondents deemed a four-year college education unaffordable. And yet, regardless of their income, they were confident that their children – if not those other poor slobs' kids – would go to college. Somehow.

It's reached the point where higher education organizations are launching campaigns to get out the message that families can send their kids to college (see box on page 54), and that they don't necessarily have to rule out private schools. The amount a family is expected to pay for college – calculations that the feds and most colleges base on salary, assets, family size and other variables – is the same regardless of whether a student is headed for State U. or Princeton. The financial aid package at the pricier college usually will rise to fill the gap between what the school costs and what the family is expected to contribute.

Aware, too, of middle-class fears and squawks, many colleges are offering more merit aid for talented students, and attractive loan options are popping up for the 60 percent of families who borrow to help finance higher education.

Still – given the sticker shock, the last-minute approach to a fraught subject, the confusing thicket of financial aid requirements, perhaps a desire to save some money for graduate school – most families hit May 1, when the where-to-go decision is at hand, and make similar choices: For nearly 30 years, more than three-quarters of college students have enrolled at public institutions.

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And those leaning the other way? Particularly those too well-off for much financial aid but not well-off enough to write the checks? They agonize and their kids agonize. Something is pulling a child toward a private college – a particular academic program, a reputation for excellence, perhaps a location, a vision of a traditional grassy quad and a small community of scholars – and triggering that I-belong-there response. Maybe the family should have had The Talk about finances a few years back, but so many didn't; parents don't like to limit their kids' aspirations. What they said instead was, approximately: Go for it, sweetheart, we'll figure out the money later. And now it's later.

The Franklins are on the road at 5:30 a.m., bound for Charlottesville.

Al Franklin, at the wheel of their Ford station wagon, is a fan of the University of Virginia. He went there himself, on the GI Bill, before getting a law degree and beginning a long career at the National Security Agency. He can also point to the copy of the U.S. News & World Report Best Colleges Guide he bought recently to confirm his enthusiasm: The school's ranked No. 22 on the list of best national universities, a hair ahead of Tufts, and it's tied with the University of California at Berkeley for the best public university.

Bonnie feels similarly. "All my coworkers who live in Maryland say, 'Oh, you're so lucky,' " she says. She's spent her whole career with the IRS and has mused about retiring; now she's wondering whether she should keep working, if Amy's headed someplace pricey, or even switch to a more lucrative job with a private firm.

As for Amy, who applied to U-Va. at her parents' prompting, she tours the campus that Jefferson designed, sits in on a big lecture on Eastern religions, hears about dorm life and about the vast array of campus activities, and decides it might be okay there. The government and foreign affairs curriculum isn't exactly what she wants, and she's disturbed to see students wander into the religion lecture late and then make noisy early exits before the professor even finishes speaking. "Kind of disillusioning," she says. "Kids in my high school are better behaved than that." Still, "the Rotunda and the Lawn are so pretty."

Despite the school's size – 12,000-plus undergrads – it still has an almost-cozy sense of community. Afterward, she says, "My feeling was, I wouldn't feel like I was giving up that much." Though she sounds a bit as though she's talking herself into it.

But then a few days later, she and her mother fly to Boston to see the long-dreamed-of Tufts, and it doesn't feel quite right, either. The suburban campus isn't as attractive as U-Va., and it seems dispirited on this chilly weekend. A college festival, with moon bounces and live music, cranks up and then fizzles within a couple of hours. The tour guide reports, with some pride, that Tufts students aren't much interested in going to football games – not what Amy, co-captain of the Yorktown High color guard, wants to hear. And on weekends everyone heads into nearby Boston. Maybe that means there's not enough happening on campus?

"It just didn't seem that alive," she says afterward. "Maybe because it was so cold." It's unnerving, having had such expectations, to feel lukewarm about the place. "I'm so glad that I'm not making this decision," her mother says.

They agree to complete the round of visits and then, Amy vows, "I'll sit down and really think about it."

Is the degree worth that much? Bonnie Franklin wonders – meaning the one that would cost more than $130,000. There are public universities where even out-of-state students can earn their undergraduate degrees and an MD, MBA or law degree for less than the price of a BA from the Ivy League.

But assessing the effects of public colleges versus private, as lots of researchers have attempted to do, is no simple thing. One clear advantage for private schools, according to Department of Education stats, is that their students are more likely to graduate on time: Almost two-thirds of their full-time enrollees complete their bachelor's degrees within four years, twice the rate of students in public colleges.

Beyond that, there's little consensus that a private college experience, in itself, makes a student measurably healthier, wealthier or wiser. Ernest Pascarella of the University of Iowa, co-author of a nearly 900-page tome called How College Affects Students, has sifted through 2,600 studies conducted over more than 20 years. He and co-author Patrick Terenzini of Penn State looked at the intellectual skills, the attitudes and values, the psychosocial characteristics, the economic returns, of graduates from various types of colleges. And?

"Taking into account the differences in the kinds of kids they admit," Pascarella concludes, "the typical measures don't show much difference." Even in subsequent careers and incomes, the very benefits the public tends to attribute to selective private universities with brand names, the effects appear modest. "Yes, the kids that go to those schools make a lot of money and have wonderful careers," Pascarella explains. "But when you look at their background characteristics, the differences disappear or become very small."

Meaning that it's more the sorts of students they take in, rather than what happens once they're on campus, that accounts for most of the differences between colleges' graduates. "If the freshmen at Harvard were randomly distributed across the country, they'd do pretty damn well because they're bright, motivated students," Pascarella says. Meaning, further, that if you're bright and motivated enough to get into one of those selective private schools, you may not need to actually attend one in order to do virtually as well – in those outcomes that questionnaires can measure – as if you had.

The notion seems to persist, however, that expensive schools pay off. In the American Council on Education study, parents were presented with a situation: A kid is accepted at "a very good, expensive college" that would require the family to make financial sacrifices – taking out a second mortgage, for instance, or going without vacations for a few years or forgoing a new car – but also at "an average, less expensive college." Most respondents said they thought most families would opt for the more affordable school. When the question was rephrased to say it's "your child" facing the choice, however, most parents wanted the "very good but expensive" brand. And it's true that surveys can't gauge everything, that the experience of going to tiny Amherst can be very different from attending sprawling Penn State.

"Bottom line, it's not rational," says Joyce Smith. "It's whose life is it and what's this really worth – all those discussions that should have taken place at the beginning of the process, not the end."

But then, lots of life decisions – school and career, marriage, the decision to become a parent itself – would be hard to chart according to pure logic. Consider Andrew Haskell, a passionate and talented jazz pianist about to graduate from Montgomery Blair High in Silver Spring who's been accepted by several jazz studies programs, including the one at the State University of New York at Purchase. Even for an out-of-state student, it's a comparative bargain at $16,602 per year. But where he really wants to go is the Mannes College of Music at the New School University, in Greenwich Village. New York City! The energy, the musicians, the clubs! He could leave class and catch a set at the Village Vanguard in five minutes! All for only $30,417.

Driving home from his successful audition there, he and his mother emerge on the Jersey side of the Lincoln Tunnel and, looking back, see that skyline. "Ohhh, Mom. Look at that. I just want to be there," he says. What parent wants to squelch such dreams?

The College of William and Mary is a bust. Pretty campus but ominously quiet, Amy Franklin thinks, and the international affairs program doesn't seem to fit her interests. She falls asleep in the car on the drive home. Weary of traipsing around campuses, "I just want to make my decision," she says afterward, "and know where I'm going."

But there's still one more visit scheduled. The Georgetown University tour begins the following morning at spired Healy Hall, "a cathedral-looking building with the quad out front," Amy reports. It's a crystalline spring day, the dogwoods are in bloom, and as she watches students crisscross the campus, "this feeling of spirituality" descends. Serenity, perhaps. She thinks: "This feels good." She and her mother visit a theology course, in which no one disses the elderly Jesuit professor (who, impressively, speaks without notes) by jumping up to leave early. Amy has a friendly lunch with other prospective School of Foreign Service freshmen at which the assistant dean drops by to chat a bit about his adventures as former ambassador to Gabon.

Plus – a bit of serendipity – the Franklins run into a high school classmate of Amy's who wants to introduce them to her father, who, Amy vaguely recalls, is on the Georgetown faculty. Turns out that her friend's dad is Robert Gallucci, dean of the School of Foreign Service, who graciously ushers them into his elegant office and spends 15 minutes talking about his plans for the school and discussing Amy's future.

Gradually, this starts to feel like the right place. "You know, Amy, I could see you here," Bonnie Franklin says as they stroll past the dormitories. And Amy responds, "I was thinking the same thing."

They go home and tell Al Franklin: Amy loves Georgetown. Excited and relieved – it's only a week before the May 1 deadline – she sends off her Enrollment Agreement form and the senior Franklins write the first check, an $850 deposit. "It feels right," Bonnie Franklin says. "I think it's worth it, for Georgetown."

They'll belt-tighten, she says. Fewer new clothes, keep those old cars running awhile longer, and the kitchen that hasn't been renovated in 20 years will stay that way for several more. They'll pay part of the tab on a 10-month payment plan, maybe cash in their savings bonds, and borrow the rest.

A friend took a home-equity loan to pay for college. Bonnie Franklin could get one through her credit union. They'll manage somehow.

Paula Span is a New York-based staff writer for The Post's Style section.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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