WASHINGTON – Despite rising college costs, students are so focused on admission that they fail to seek scholarships and grants, leaving them — and their parents — shocked when the bill arrives, officials say.
“We have an incredibly difficult time getting anyone to apply to (outside) scholarships,” said Cydney Wentsel, supervisor of guidance and counseling for Harford County Public Schools. “What I think is common is a lot of kids assume they’re going to go to college in this day and age, and the families aren’t prepared for the expense of sending them.”
College costs continue to climb, and Maryland is no exception. The University System of Maryland raised tuition this fall by an average of 13 percent. That was after a 5 percent mid-year tuition increase that was imposed in January at all campuses except Coppin State College and University College.
Despite the well-publicized hikes, experts say families are not saving for college, and that 2 to 3 percent increases in family incomes cannot keep pace with double-digit increases in college tuitions.
“People are so focused on the admission process,” said David Cooper, managing director for wiredscholar.com, a college-planning Web site run by Sallie Mae. “They didn’t spend the appropriate time on how they’re going to pay for it.”
As a result, Cooper said, more students are taking out loans, which are funding ever-larger portions of a student’s college bill. Educators say the number of young students attending less-expensive community colleges is also on the rise.
Nancy Davis, chairwoman of the guidance department at Frederick High School, said the best bet for students seeking college money is the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, which determines eligibility for both federal and state aid.
If students do not qualify for need-based funds, Davis said they should search for scholarships at their college of choice or at their high school, though not all are. Finally, national scholarships are an option, but they are very hard to win.
“For us to have one of our students get the Coca-Cola and the Wal-Mart (scholarships), it has to be the most outstanding student,” Davis said.
Wentsel said local groups offer numerous awards for high school seniors going on to college, ranging from $50 to as much as $1,000, but that it is unusual for a student to piece together enough of those to foot a hefty tuition bill. Sometimes, she said, as few as three students will apply for such an award.
Davis said students who do not qualify for aid and cannot get all the scholarship money they need might have to reconsider their options.
“My feeling is you don’t go to a $25,000 school,” said Davis, who worked to put herself through community college. “Not everyone needs to go to University of Maryland (or) Cornell.”
Wentsel added that College Park and other schools are becoming more selective each year, further reducing students’ chances of aid.
“They still want those top students, and they’ll finance those top students,” Wentsel said. “(But) students five years ago that would get in with a financial aid package are not getting in, or getting in without that financial aid package.”
And financing a college education 10 years from now looks grimmer: If tuition rises 7 percent a year, today’s third-grader can expect to pay $125,000 for an in-state education at College Park, including room and board.
But that has yet to hit home to most prospective students, the advisers say.
“You have just a select few kids that have the initiative, the motivation (to look for aid), that are truly proactive,” Davis said. “And I really have a lot of respect for those kids.”