College Tuition Crisis Hits Affluent Suburbs

As the nation braces itself for a potential slide off the fiscal cliff, middle class families across the country are increasingly staring down the precipice of another, equally dizzying abyss: college tuition. With costs rising in schools from California to Connecticut, parents in one Bay Area suburb are looking for ways to keep from going over.

Most are banking on scholastic or sports scholarships to do that.

Peter Li and his wife Amy live in Orinda, Calif., a wealthy enclave about 30 miles east of San Francisco. Despite the relative affluence of residents here, families like the Lis were not totally immune to the recent recession.

“We don’t have the resources to set aside money for our kids,” explains Amy Li, who moved to the Bay Area with her husband 16 years ago from their native Hong Kong. Since 2008, the family has seen its income fall steadily. Peter Li, a contractor, says orders have shrunk in recent years, while his wife, an accountant, has seen annual bonuses dry up, crimping their budget.

That’s why the pair is hoping their children’s academic achievements will help fund their college careers. “Both our children have strong GPAs, extra-curriculars, and volunteer service,” the mother explains, “so we are hoping that they will qualify for academic scholarships and need-based financial aid when the time comes.”

The Lis say they’d like their two sons – a freshman and junior in high school -- to attend a school within the UC system, “like UC Berkeley or UCLA,” where the estimated average annual cost per student, including living expenses, is around $30,000, more than three times what families paid 10 years ago. But with Orinda’s median household income topping $150,000, the Lis’ sons will likely not qualify for state or federal loans.

Still, rising costs haven’t dampened their enthusiasm for higher education. “Neither my wife nor I ever went to college, and I do believe the lack of higher education has hampered my adult life,” says Peter Li. “It is important to us that both of our kids go to school, even if paying for it will not be easy.”

That attitude puts the Lis and their neighbors squarely at odds with a growing number of middle-class families across the country.

According to a recent study, some 20 percent of American families earning between $50,000 and $250,000 a year say that college is no longer a worthwhile investment. Many cite weak job numbers and mounting post-graduation debt.

For those who do have kids in college, about three-quarters rely on some type of financial aid, whether in the form of grants, scholarships or loans. In 2011, more than 21 million families filled out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), up 49 percent from the year before. Over the past five years, total education borrowing – including federal and non-federal student and parent loans -- climbed 24 percent to $113 billion in 2011-2012, according to a report from the non-profit College Board.

Average student loan debt for 2011, meanwhile, jumped 5 percent from the year before to $26,500. Much of that has fallen on parents.

The latest government data shows that 11 percent of student loans are delinquent, up nearly 9-percent from a year ago.

“Of course I’m concerned about the cost of college and student loan debt,” says Margaret Rass, an unemployed single mother who lost her job last year due to company-wide downsizing. While she’s managed to put away about $30,000 in a college savings plan, she is still hoping for some form of government aid to ensure her daughter attains her “educational dreams.”

Rass says she is convinced college will allow her daughter, a senior in high school, to “be better off than I am. Many, many people go to college these days, and I don’t want her future to suffer because we don’t have the means to pay.”

For others, meeting their children’s tuition expenses could come not through the classroom, but on the field.

Another family that asked that their last name not be used hasn’t seen a stable income since the father lost his job as a financial banker two years ago. Though his previous salary would have been enough to cover tuition for the family’s three children, both parents are hoping their eldest son’s academic and athletic prowess will secure him the funding he needs.

“I’m hoping he’ll be able receive some scholarships,” says Dana, the mother of a 16-year old high school junior who currently plays three varsity-level sports and has a 4.6 weighted GPA. “Borrowing money and graduating in debt is not ideal,” she adds, “but we do want [our son] to attend a university and we will try to finance it as best we can.”

Her eldest son is hoping to be recruited by Stanford, Dartmouth, UC Berkeley, and Columbia, though where he eventually applies will depend on which school offers him the best deal. The National Collegiate Athletic Association awards about $1 billion in athletic scholarships each year to around 126,000 undergraduate athletes.

Like their neighbors, the family’s commitment to providing higher education for their children is fueled in large part by concerns about financial and job security. But it also comes from a deeper, traditionally American view of college, one that seems to be increasingly on the wane.

“[My husband] and I met at college and we believe the entire experience is an important one,” says Dana. “We wouldn’t want him to miss out on that four-year opportunity.


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