Tucson CitizenTucson Citizen

Teen columnist: Middle class feels the squeeze when trying to pay for college



For many, financial aid opens doors to higher education, operating on the idea that everyone deserves the gift of knowledge, and that with determination, the American Dream can come true.

But for all its promise, need-based financial aid at many institutions can be a catch-22.

Families at the low end of the economic spectrum may find it relatively easy to demonstrate their need for assistance. Those in America’s middle class, however, often manage to have both too much and not enough.

These families don’t have the money in their pockets to pay tuition, but they have too much invested in various assets to qualify for the financial aid they need.

It can lead families to take out student loans, which eventually bury them in debt. Often, it also means students must turn down their first-choice school in favor of the one that offers better aid.

Something in the system is broken, and some colleges have begun to catch on.

Harvard University overhauled its financial aid system in December 2007, ensuring that families earning up to $180,000 annually would pay no more than 10 percent of their income.

It was an effort to draw middle-class students toward the university and partially to dispel the idea that the Ivy League exists only for the wealthy. Other schools in the Ivy League followed suit.

What cannot be forgotten is that Harvard has one of the largest endowments of any nonprofit organization worldwide, second only to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

The same cannot be said for most public universities, which are primarily funded by – lest we forget – a government riddled with debt.

That national debt is mirrored in many Americans’ day-to-day lives. According to the Project on Student Debt, the average student in Arizona owes $18,440 once he or she graduates from college.

In-state tuition is affordable for most Arizona families, and if one really hopes to go out of state for college, there are always private scholarships to look for.

Some schools, in an effort to stanch student debt, have introduced no-loan policies, providing grants instead of loans to lessen money owed by families earning less than $60,000 yearly.

But these schools, like Harvard, also benefit from high financial endowments, creating yet another confusing challenge for schools that simply don’t have the money to provide that kind of aid.

It seems both students and many of the schools they hope to attend face an uncertain solution. It’s another Catch-22: The answer isn’t really an answer at all.

Instead, Harvard’s answer has led to more questions: How can most universities step up their financial aid programs to compete with the Ivy League? And how can students in the middle class afford to get the education they want when most out-of-state schools can’t provide a solution?

It seems the 21st century version of the American Dream involves a lot of number crunching.

Natalee Dawson, a sophomore at Salpointe Catholic High School, is news editor of The Crusader school newspaper. E-mail: nd27@hotmail.com

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