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As I vicariously live through my 18-year-old daughter’s quest for the perfect college – the one that offers the program and training she longs for as well as the cultural and academic stimulation she’s ready to embrace – a sickening feeling keeps creeping into the forefront of my consciousness

How are we going to pay for it?

Okay, I know many are shaking their heads and chuckling at my naiveté, how could I have gotten this far in the search for college without narrowing down the choices to those that are affordable to middle class parents? But the truth is, what colleges are affordable in this day and age to those of us in the middle class? And, what colleges could possibly be accessible for a middle class girl with big dreams?

My daughter, Rosie, attended a tiny charter school in our alternative community in the hinterlands of coastal Northern California. For four years we watched her schoolmates reach their senior years, apply to prestigious, and even Ivy League schools on the East and West coasts and receive grants and scholarships to allow their attendance for the full four years. My best friend’s daughter, five years older than Rosie, made it into Brown, received almost a full-ride (they even offered funds for her travel from the West Coast and for winter clothing to accommodate the change to such cold weather) and graduated just last year, after studying and working in Africa for two semesters.

But Rosie’s graduation in June of 2009 occurred at an inopportune moment: the number of freshmen applicants exceeded the amount of any previous year (as many colleges asserted in their rejection letters) and the world economy was facing the biggest downturn seen since the great depression of the 1930s. Many private schools which just a few years before were offering full scholarships to promising students were now looking at endowment funds that had been slashed by 50 percent or more.

So Rosie, faced with a stack of rejection letters from her top schools, went off to attend a school she had not even visited. And now we are caught up in a whirlwind of “college application redux” because she is starting all over and hoping to at least get into a school where she can be moderately content with a four-year stay. I’m scraping together every penny I have, and reluctantly pulling out the credit card to make sure she visits each and every possibility this time.

But there’s just one big problem: even if she gets in, how the hell are we going to pay for it?

Last night, with a sigh of relief I clicked “send” on both the FAFSA and PROFILE financial aid applications. The FAFSA is free – it’s the one that all the guidance counselors wave to insist than anyone, no matter what their circumstances can get financial aid. And they’re right. The PROFILE is a bit more elitist. There’s a fee just to file it (around $15, and then an additional $16 per school to file the application.) So that tells me that Brown, Sarah Lawrence and Ithaca Colleges are schools only available to those who have at least reached the financial wherewithal to come up with about $50 to file an aid application just in case they might be awarded a grant or scholarship to enable them to attend.

Meanwhile, the supposedly “cheaper” schools, meaning our venerable state universities, do not offer any type of financial aid in grant form, beyond what is offered by the U.S. Government or the state of California. Tuition for the University of California has recently increased by 30 percent, making the bill for a live-in student more than $30,000 per year. So, let’s see – with the current economic downturn, there is little chance I will ever get a raise in my current job as editor of a nonprofit environmental center’s newsletter, so my income is pretty fixed  – solidly in the working class range. Yet, I dare not quit and search for a higher-paying job in our economically depressed county, and hesitate to move to a larger city where I may or may not find work. My husband is self-employed as a lawn maintenance person. Jobs aren’t as easy to come by as they once were. His income came in at even less than mine this ear.

So our total gross reported income for 2009 is $42,000. Guess how much that gets us in grants from the U.S. government? A whopping $2,500! Yes that’s right, Uncle Sam is generously offering this struggling middle class family $2,500 toward a yearly college bill of at least $30,000 (including room and board for a student that is presumably far from home.) And $30,000 is the absolute cheapest tuition for a school that is of the caliber of a UC.

So, okay, we can insist that she attends a UC so she will be eligible for a Cal Grant. These grants are only distributed to students who have followed a specific curriculum in high school, or who have been awarded high scores on specific AP or IB tests. Fortunately my daughter fits the criteria. So, according to the Cal Grant web site, we could possibly receive up to $9,700 to attend a California college. Except I’ve never heard of anyone getting that much money, and I have no idea what type of school she would have to attend to be eligible for such a sum. But let’s say that Cal Grant kicks in another $3,000 or so. That gives us $5,500 toward a yearly college expense of $30,00 to $50,000.

So – then what? Well, look for scholarships they say. Rosie should probably write at least 50 essays to apply for scholarships that range from $100 to $10,000 – and she might not receive a penny. Or hopefully for her time investment she will get maybe one or two thousand dollars. Some schools will automatically deduct that from whatever grant they may have offered.

In the end we are left with the option of borrowing the money. Freshmen are eligible for $5,500 in guaranteed student loans. Each year they become eligible for more. Hence, the kids graduating with upwards of $40,000 owed in debt. As for parents – well the sky’s the limit. Let’s  give a big drum roll for the Parent Plus Loan!!! It doesn’t take much to apply and it take even less to qualify. The government is willing to lend us parents thousands upon thousands of dollars to put our kids through college. At an appropriately steep interest rate of course.

We borrowed $7,000 for that first semester at the ill-fated Illinois university that didn’t work out. I’ve received my payback documents, which specify that with a payment plan of $100 per month, I will have paid $25,000 by the time the debt is paid.

Can this be real? I need to call Direct Student Loans to verify. It seems ludicrous – especially with the realization that I might be borrowing a far larger sum to put her through the next three years. Basically I’m looking at a debt almost as big as, or possibly bigger than, my mortgage. Or put another way, I’m leveraging my future, the second and final portion of my life, to put my daughter through college.

Have I mentioned that since I spent most of my adult life as a self-employed owner of a small shop, I have virtually no retirement?

I’d better hope that education buys her a good income, because someone’s going to have to take care of me in my dotage – if I make it that far. I certainly won’t have the savings.

And yet, the other day a thought came to me. Real financial aid IS available for the “truly” needy. And that of course is a good thing. If we did not own our house, if we had been living on food stamps and welfare payments throughout Rosie’s childhood, our Pell Grant would be much higher. Again, I must reiterate that this is a good government policy that allows disadvantaged young people in this country a chance to get an education.

But…somehow it just doesn’t seem fair to those of us stuck in the middle class. We struggled and worked to buy our modest home. We pay our bills, and we’re not left with much savings. No investments, no retirement, minimal health care plan if any at all. But yet – when confronted with a bill of close to $200,000 to put a kid through four years of college we’re expected to suck it up and borrow the money.

That friend whose kid got a hug scholarship to Brown? Single mom. Well, maybe the dad was around somewhere, but no need to report his income. The reality is that single-parent families and the truly impoverished are the only ones who receive the benefits of educational grants.

For the rest of us – well we have to get creative. Which has made me wonder… what if I and my paltry income were to disappear? Maybe something should be arranged? It may be that when it comes to buying an education for my daughter I may be worth more dead than alive…

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