Paying for college

Istart college this week -- Barnard, on a full scholarship. I never thought I’d feel lucky that my parents have virtually no income. I live with my mom, who is a full-time student; my dad teaches part time. Although I’d like to think my scholarship is merit-based, were my parents more comfortably middle class, I would not have been so fortunate. And without a scholarship, there’s no way I could afford a school such as Barnard.

The situation is more complicated for my friend E.G., who will be a freshman at his first-choice school this fall, Johns Hopkins University. He was at my house when his dad text-messaged me, asking that I pass along that his ACT score had come -- 34 out of a perfect 36. Last year, he competed in the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair with a project in which he figured out how to extract a chemical from sassafras root that treats parasites in beehives and could prevent colony collapse disorder.

His parents met in South Korea, where his father was based during his U.S. military service. E.G.'s mom is an overnight supervisor for Kmart, and his dad is a civil engineer working with flood relief/recovery operations in the Air National Guard. This is information that he has volunteered to me proudly.


E.G. got some scholarship money, but he is having trouble coming up with his share of the costs for one year -- $30,875 -- because, as his dad put it, his family is “in the nether region.” Their household income is too much to qualify for substantial financial aid but not enough to pay that amount. In other words, being middle class makes it nearly impossible to afford the college of your choice, even if you get in.

Sure, E.G. could accept one of his more lucrative scholarship offers at another school. But E.G. wants the best, and suggesting that all brilliant middle-class kids should just go to the schools they can afford undermines the meritocracy that we claim as a nation. Those worthy of the best are not the richest or the poorest but the brightest.

The latest U.S. census figures put the median household income in 2006 at $48,200. According to the College Board, the average tuition at a public four-year college is $6,185; for a private one, $23,712. Most top-tier universities are edging up on $40,000. The total cost -- room and board, books, transportation -- at E.G.'s college for the 2008-09 year is $52,578.

Here’s another example. My friend Maggie is far more disciplined and hardworking than me, and, like me, she graduated in the top 10 of our high school class. She emigrated from Russia when she was 5. Her dad is a limo driver and earns just enough to support their family of four. Maggie has been accepted at Bard College, which gave her a significant aid package, but she is still responsible for $8,000 a year. Bard assumed that she’d be able to get a loan for that. She applied for a dozen and was rejected for all of them.

The school suggested to Maggie that she defer for a year to give her time to come up with the cash. But the reality is an 18-year-old would be lucky to get a job paying $10 an hour. And the college expects her to save $8,000 in 12 months? Her family finally raised the money, paying Bard in installments from assets back in Russia. But what about next year?

This year, according to the Bureau of Economic Analysis, the average American’s savings may be near .0% of their disposable income. What this means is that in a startling number of households, college is even more out of reach, even without an unexpected expense such as a mother with cancer, a grandparent who requires live-in help or even dental work or repairs on the car that a parent needs to get to work.

Combine that with the difficult economic times we’re in and it makes little sense to me that financial-aid policies consider an income large enough to pay the bulk of tuition large enough to afford it. Colleges need to recognize the difference between the two.

The schools that accepted my friends have endowments -- Johns Hopkins’ is nearly $3 billion, and its website says that it is “a community committed to sharing values of diversity and inclusion.” Something is not adding up. The university has billions of dollars and seeks a diverse student body. But it must mean “diverse” with an asterisk: It only applies to those who can afford $52,578 a year, or the very few who are both impoverished and qualified.

An annual college bill that exceeds the median household income, and an income level set too low for families like E.G.'s to qualify for aid, seem designed to exclude the middle class.

With the $30,875 that E.G. is responsible for each year, he says that by the time he’s a junior, he will have dried up all the money his father has saved over 25-plus years. I asked him how his 15-year-old sister was going to pay for college. He said he would “make it back” and help her.

Although the thought is sweet, the reality is that when E.G. graduates, even if he gets a high-paying job, he will have massive loans to deal with. (The American college undergrad leaves with an average of nearly $20,000 in student debt, and many have loans that are much higher.) We are all prepared to take out loans for our education but, say, $40,000? That may as well be Monopoly money.

Academically, colleges know there are indicators that help give a more complete picture of whether a student will thrive at their schools. These factors can be far from -- even contradict -- a standardized test score or GPA. That’s why the admissions process includes essays and interviews. Economically, colleges have to apply the same reasoning and recognize that a family’s financial profile on paper often says very little about what that family can afford. Although the application for federal aid does take into account college-age siblings and parents’ marital status, schools don’t give this information enough weight.

A few universities have moved in the right direction. Harvard, for instance, announced its “sweeping middle-income initiative” last year. According to the Harvard University Gazette Online, “factors such as family size, healthcare costs, sibling educational expenses and other non-discretionary expenses that place a drain on family finances are considered carefully ... and there is no income cut-off for need-based scholarship eligibility.”

This is common sense and the only way to get the best kids going to the best schools. Maggie and E.G. are eager to start learning at their schools, but I am eager for their schools to start learning from them. The concept of “need-based” financial aid is due for an overhaul in an economy that has redefined college for most families as a “want” and not a “need.”

Zoe Mendelson is one of the authors of “Red: The Next Generation of American Writers -- Teenage Girls -- on What Fires Up Their Lives Today” and a blogger at