Cost Complicates College Choice

Across Massachusetts, high school seniors are facing a big deadline.

By May 1st, they must decide where they'll spend the next four years...and how much they can spend on the college or university of their choice.

This year, as WBUR's Bianca Vazquez Toness reports, the decision is complicated by a declining economy and shrinking loan options.

BIANCA VAZQUEZ TONESS: Jessica Pekkola is a high school senior from Holden, in Central Massachusetts. She wants to be a nurse like her mother.

They started talking about college years ago, not so much about what they could or couldn't afford, but mainly about applying to a range of schools, Jessica says.

JESSICA PEKKOLA: I had five colleges I applied to, two of them were state schools and three of them were private schools, and I made into three of them for nursing programs.

TONESS: This is a huge coup, nursing programs are competitive, and these schools only accept dozens of new students each year.

Jessica fell in love with the Massachusetts College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences, located in Boston's medical area. Betty Pekkola was so wowed by the school's facilities that she urged Jessica to send in a $500 deposit to hold her place in the nursing program.

BETTY PEKKOLA: I was really impressed with it. I loved the lab. I loved the dynamics of it. The whole thing was really impressive. But when it came to reality, we had to sit down and look at facts and figures.

TONESS: Room and board for the school amount to more than $40,000 a year.

Jessica has been offered an annual scholarship for $9,000, but she and her mother--who is a single parent of two--are expected to come up with the rest.

The Pekkolas looked at loans but were spooked when both public and private lenders recently started pulling out of the business.

Betty says that made her even more anxious.

PEKKOLA: It's like mom will get a loan, no big deal, but then when I started to add up the costs of where we are right now. And having to pay for a house, having that mortgage monthly,
the price of gas, and to put on another loan on top of that...whether its 500 a month, or whatever it is...
I just said to Jessie, we just have to be realistic. I says mom honestly can't afford this.

TONESS: Betty says those were tough words to tell her older daughter, who's always excelled at school and helped at home.

High School guidance counselors say families like the Pekkola's are more and more intimidated by the cost of college, especially as the economy gets shaky.

At Newton North High School, counselor Brad Macgowan says money--more than ever--is influencing college choice.

BRAD MACGOWAN: I see a lot of students being what we call "gapped"...That's having not full need met by the college with the expectations that they would take out more loans, and at the same time a lot more places aren't giving loans. And with all of the problems in the economy,
it is more of a problem than it's ever been.

TONESS: Macgowan says students will either end up taking on bigger loans or choose in-state public schools. There are signs that's already happening...

Judy Keyes directs financial aid at UMASS Boston.

JUDY KEYES: So very preliminary figures do show more middle to upper income families applying for financial aid than we've seen in the last couple of years.

TONESS: Keyes says families who don't qualify for full aid at private schools, but also don't have the stomach to take on huge debt, are looking more seriously at UMASS Boston.
Tuition there is about $9,000 next fall.

That's how Jessica and Betty Pekkola came to decide on UMASS Boston.
Jessica will get free tuition because of her high MCAS scores, but her mother may still have to get loans to cover Jessica's room and board.

Betty says it was hard giving up the dream of the private school with smaller classes and fancy facilities, but she also wonders if that education is worth the money..

PEKKOLA: Once you graduate and become a nurse no one's going to ask you where you went to college.

TONESS: For her part, Jessica says she'll be happy to graduate and find a job without the worry of a big debt.

This program aired on April 24, 2008. The audio for this program is not available.


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