When John Horner Jr. first declared his college of choice, his parents told him he was crazy. Sure, he wanted a top-notch university. Sure, he liked a cozy campus. Sure, he wanted to be near home. But at what cost?
Not $18,000 -- the price tag for the 1986 freshman year at the Johns Hopkins University.
"I said, 'John, you're crazy. We can't afford that,' " recalled Mary Horner, sitting at the dinner table in her Parkville home. "But he went to visit, and he fell in love with it.
"A lot of parents would have said, 'We can't do this.' But my kids are good kids. They deserve a shot."
What started as a shot in the Horner home soon seemed like a firing squad. By 1988, all three Horner children were attending Hopkins. The full cost to house, feed and educate the siblings soared to $60,000 -- significantly more than the parents' joint income of about $50,000.
The Horners, like many middle-income families, faced trying to pay for their children's educations without bankrupting themselves.
This problem, increasingly common among the nation's middle-income families -- which Hopkins' administrators define as families making between $40,000 and $60,000 -- is fast reaching crisis proportions. College administrators worry that without expanded federal loan programs, rising college costs will continue to drive out middle-income students and polarize campuses between rich and poor.
At Hopkins, the percentage of students from middle-income families dropped from approximately 27 percent in 1982 to 18 percent in 1989.
"There is a tremendous squeeze on middle-income families," said Ellen Frishberg, director of student financial services at Hopkins. "What we find most distressing is that families aren't even bothering to ask for financial aid anymore -- they just don't apply to the school."
Ms. Frishberg said 60 percent of Hopkins students receive some kind of financial aid. In addition to families taking loans on their homes or applying for educational loans, students themselves are assuming more responsibility for college costs. Ms. Frishberg said the average 1991 Hopkins graduate owes $9,800.
That squares with the Horners' experience. Jean estimates she will owe close to $10,000 when she graduates. Kate owed about $8,300. John, who had the most extensive scholarship package, owed only $1,000.
Student borrowing is integral to making college affordable, but academic policy-makers are pushing legislation making federal loans more available to middle-income families to ease the problem.
"I don't think there's a college or university in the country that wants to see its student body consist of only lower-income and upper-income students," said Robert Massa, executive director of financial services at Hopkins. "But the availability of federal loans has not kept pace with the Consumer Price Index let alone the higher education price index."
If the legislation passes, which would not be until next spring, it will be too late to help the Horners. John Jr., class of 1990, works at Baltimore Gas and Electric Co.; Kate, class of 1991, is in graduate school at the University of Maryland at Baltimore and Jean, class of 1992, will have just graduated.
But this family's saga -- a testimony to the power of skimping, saving and single-minded dedication -- shows the kind of sacrifice that must be endured when middle-income families make higher education their first priority.
John and Mary Horner are plain-speaking people, paragons of old-time virtues. For them, God, country and family are a way of life. Both went to parochial schools and wanted their children to have the same advantage. Neither went to college, but they never doubted their offspring would.
"I am these kids' best friend; there isn't anyone who is going to push harder for them than me," said Mrs. Horner, an X-ray technologist. "Neither my husband nor I have a degree. But we knew the children would."
When John Jr., a graduate of Calvert Hall, chose Hopkins, the family sprang into action. Before being accepted, they were busy preparing financial aid forms, researching scholarships and investigating loans.
"Our belief was that anyone giving away money is entitled to a letter from us," said Mr. Horner, a supply supervisor for the Maryland National Guard. "We beat the bushes for leads. We talked to people, we did research in the library and we looked for announcements in the newspaper, in community fliers and on bulletin boards."
While the family was pursuing sources of money, John Jr. won a merit scholarship that provided 60 percent of his tuition. He also received grants from the Parkville Recreational Council and the Greater Parkville Community Council.
In the meantime, Mr. and Mrs. Horner had filled in the financial aid form, the standard questionnaire prepared by the College Board of Princeton, N.J., which lays bare a family's financial history. They hoped full disclosure would make a convincing case for their need. But the help they anticipated was not forthcoming.