Published Online: June 9, 2009

Economy Forces 2009 Grads to Dump Dream Colleges

The wretched economy has taught many of the nation's college-bound seniors a hard lesson: You can't always get what you want.

In a surveyRequires Adobe Acrobat Reader to be released Tuesday, 71 percent of high schools reported that more of their students are forgoing their "dream schools" this year than in previous years. And there is little doubt money is a big reason.

"With the exception of one or two students, it was THE determining factor in their decision," one high school official wrote. Said another: "Parents were willing to pay for prestige in the past. This year they wanted prestigious schools IF the financial aid packages would work for them."

The survey was conducted by the National Association for College Admission Counseling, made up of high school and college admissions and financial aid professionals. This is the first time the organization has done such a survey; it set out to study students' picks in light of the economic downturn.

Laura Mueller-Soppart, graduating Thursday from Walter Payton College Prep in Chicago, knew Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service was her dream school when she visited last year.

The campus was sparkling with erudite conversations about international affairs. Her hero, former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, is on the faculty. She had worked for President Barack Obama's campaign, and attending college in Washington would put her at the center of the political universe.

She got accepted, but when the financial aid award letters arrived, her family's expected contribution was way beyond what they felt they could afford, given how the drop in the stock market had cut their savings by more than half. She also had two younger brothers to think about.

So when Northeastern University in Boston offered her a nearly full ride, she asked herself: "Do I go $200,000 in the hole because so many told me Georgetown was indispensable, or do I take the full ride?"

She is taking the full ride.

"It was really hard for me, hard to the point where I cried all the time because I felt it was so incredibly unfair," Mueller-Soppart said. "I told myself I could have worked half as hard as I did and ended up in the same place."

Of the 632 high schools nationally that responded to the survey, nearly 85 percent reported no change in the number of students planning to delay college.

However, the survey had a disproportionate number of private and better-off public high schools, said David Hawkins, NACAC director of public policy and research. That means the findings probably understate the number of students forgoing their dream schools or postponing college altogether.

It is still not entirely clear how the recession will affect the college outlook for most of the nation's 3.3 million 2009 high school graduates.

Sixty percent of high schools surveyed said they were seeing more students enroll in public instead of private universities, and more than 70 percent of public universities said applications were up. But more than half of private colleges also saw applications rise, indicating students are trying to give themselves more options.

Public universities stand to gain as students stay closer to home, but may also lose students to even less expensive community colleges; 37 percent of high schools reported more students attending two-year schools.

Most students have already sent in deposits, but some are covering all the bases by putting down deposits at more than one school. The final picture won't be clear until students actually show up on campus in the fall.

What is clear is that money played an outsize role in this year's college search. Students are lobbying for every last financial aid dollar.

Doug Fortenberry, lead counselor at Wylie High School, about 30 miles east of Dallas, reported a significant decrease in the number of students leaving Texas.

"It's very frustrating," he said. "I've had families in my office up in arms, and I've had numerous phone calls. I've had to call three financial aid offices this year — last year I called zero — advocating for students and trying to get an explanation about an award letter."

In some cases, students' decisions about where to go to college may be influenced primarily by their parents' financial worries, and not necessarily by any cutbacks in financial aid. A December survey by National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities found 92 percent of private schools responding planned to increase their financial aid budgets this year.

Some guidance counselors fear families have been too quick to give up on their dream schools.

"Parents and students just had the conversation that 'You're going to have to go to a state school,'" said Barbara Gajewski, college admissions counselor at Vestavia High School near Birmingham, Ala. "They didn't even want to look and take a chance, even though we counsel them the colleges will do their best to make it possible. But they didn't want their kids to end up with loans."

Georgetown promises to provide enough in grants and loans to meet the full demonstrated financial need of all students it admits, but the school relies partly on the federal financial aid form to calculate what families can afford. Mueller-Soppart said her family was punished by that formula because their savings aren't in retirement accounts; if they were, they wouldn't count against the expected family contribution.

Mueller-Soppart revisited Northeastern and has gotten more excited about the school. And her dream school will still be there in four years.

"Every day I tell myself I can still go to grad school at Georgetown," she said. "For now, I just have to suck it up."

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