It often comes down to money

Financial aid has become as important as getting in

May 20, 2001|By Michael Ollove | By Michael Ollove,SUN STAFF

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.

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