SNHU’s Steve Soba Discusses College Affordability

Tuesday, December 09, 2008
Union Leader

'How can I afford college?'

On the heels of the stock market's precipitous early October plunge, Kevin and Marie Fitzgerald of Bedford attended a college admissions event in Wakefield, Mass.

After presentations by four universities -- Johns Hopkins, Northwestern, Virginia and North Carolina -- the couple observed several fellow parents in the crowd of about 400 grill the schools' admissions counselors. 'The questioning quickly turned to, 'What is the financial support going to be for these students?' ' said Marie, whose 17-year-old triplets -- daughters Kellen and Kaitlin and son Patrick, all seniors at Trinity High School in Manchester -- are applying to college. 'The tone of the entire meeting turned almost hostile,' added Kevin, the triplets' father.

The event's uncomfortable tenor reflects the worries of many families seeking to finance higher education amid the nation's recession and financial crisis.

The stock market's recent decline has shrunk many college investment accounts considerably, and the credit crunch has made it harder for some to secure student loans. Meanwhile, college costs are at an all-time high and climbing, creating a bind for prospective students and their families. 'The No. 1 question students are asking is, 'How am I going to afford it?' ' said Steven Soba, the director of undergraduate admission at Southern New Hampshire University in Manchester.

Seeking an answer, about 100 parents and students attended Manchester Memorial High School's annual financial-aid information night on Nov. 25. After gathering tips, Helen Baroody acknowledged her uneasiness about financing college for her daughter Emily, a Memorial senior.

The Fitzgerald triplets of Bedford -- from left, Kaitlin, Patrick and Kellen -- and their parents, Kevin and Marie, are working through the complicated process of securing financial aid for college. (DAVID LANE)'I'm definitely worried,' she said. 'I'm here because we're going to need a lot of loans. Now I'm wondering if we're going to be able to get them.' Charlie Newdorf of Manchester expressed concerns about the economy but remains intent on financing college for his daughter Kaitlyn, another Memorial senior. 'My sense is we'll do whatever we can to fund it,' he said. 'We value education, and if we have to sacrifice we will. 'More seeking aid.'

Economic worries aren't dissuading many families from pursuing higher education. While it's still early in the process, New Hampshire's colleges and universities are seeing plenty of applications for fall 2009 admission.

Early-decision applications for admission to Dartmouth College in Hanover -- where 2008-09 tuition, fees, and room and board cost $47,694 -- were up 10 percent over last year, said Maria Laskaris, the school's dean of admissions and financial aid. Similarly, Saint Anselm College in Goffstown ($40,400) received the most early-decision applications in school history, said Dean of Admissions Nancy Davis Griffin.

University of New Hampshire Director of Admissions Robert McCann and Keene State College Director of Admissions Peggy Richmond said their fall 2009 applications are running ahead of last year's totals. UNH's 2008-09 in-state tuition, fees and room and board cost $20,352, and Keene State's cost $16,574.

And the Community College System of New Hampshire, where annual tuition and fees cost $5,500, has seen significant increases in applications to its seven campuses, said Shannon Reid, the system's director of communications.

While optimistic that application numbers will remain strong through the spring, school officials recognize that a weak economy likely will mean more financial-aid applications. 'We saw that last year at our school and across the country,' Griffin said. 'We certainly are prepared for that. 'According to the U.S. Department of Education, financial-aid applications increased nearly 12 percent nationwide and 16 percent in New Hampshire during the first half of 2008.

Colleges respond

Even as schools brace to accommodate more financial need, they are advising families to apply for it rather than eliminate schools from consideration strictly because of cost.

Costs for in-state students at four-year public universities in 2008-09 were 5.7 percent higher than in 2007-08, while costs for students at four-year private colleges were 5.6 percent higher, according to a College Board report released in October.

Moreover, the average education debt of students who graduated nationwide in 2007 was 6 percent higher than those who graduated in 2006, according to an October report by the Project on Student Debt, a California advocacy group that tracks student loans. In New Hampshire, the average debt level of 2007 graduates was $25,211, second-highest in the country, the report said.

Numbers such as these have focused more attention on how colleges and universities use their endowments to aid students.

Last January, Dartmouth announced it would eliminate tuition for undergraduates from families with annual incomes below $75,000 beginning in academic year 2008-09 and replace loans with scholarships in financial-aid packages starting with the class of 2012.

Seeking to compete with lower-cost public institutions, other private colleges such as St. Anselm are wrestling with how to make attendance more affordable for prospective students. 'We get what's happening,' Griffin said. 'We expect more families will have need and are doing everything we can to provide affordable financial-aid packages. We want to makes sure St. A's is in the group they're considering, and that they're not taking it off the table because of finances. And we know it's going to cost us more. 'On the public side, New Hampshire's two-year community colleges and four-year state institutions are in the first year of a partnership program that eases student transfers. 'We're promoting community college as a smart way to get the first two years of college in an affordable manner,' Reid said. Despite schools' efforts, admissions officers have observed a prevalent trend as students have created their college wish lists this year. 'Not only are families talking about academic safety schools, but financial safety schools,' Griffin said.

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