Competition is Tough

If you think getting accepted was hard, try paying tuition in this credit crunch.

Mónica Wade (right) and her parents outside their San Diego home.

Mónica Wade (right) and her parents outside their San Diego home.

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The tides of chance will splash everybody with a little bad luck from time to time. But a tsunami of economic troubles and unfortunate demographics is deluging the nation's 3.3 million high school seniors. The class of '08 may well be the unluckiest group of high school grads in modern history. They are certainly the largest senior class ever, which means they face far worse chances of getting into a selective college than their older—or younger—brothers and sisters. Indeed, they are opening a record number of thin college rejection letters right now.

And the joy of thick acceptance letters is increasingly soured by record-high tuition prices, while unprecedented collapses in real estate values and credit markets have diminished the funds that many families expected would cover their costs.

"Honestly, I've been through a few peaks and valleys, but it has never been tougher" for seniors, says Bill McClintick, president-elect of the National Association of College Admissions Counselors and director of college counseling at Mercersburg Academy in Mercersburg, Pa.

The teens and parents suffering through this spring of heartbreak have much stronger words: "I think we're screwed," says Beatríz Rodriguez-Wade, whose daughter Mónica Wade has a 4.0 grade-point average, plays on the varsity tennis team, and interns at a biotech lab. Mónica was rejected by many of her top choices, including Harvard, UCLA, and the University of California-Davis. Most of the other schools that admitted her gave her so little financial aid that her parents can't sleep at night because of worries about how much her education will cost the family. "She did everything right. She worked really hard and got really good grades. And now we have to say: 'Sorry, we can't pay for your school'? Your heart breaks."

That misery has plenty of company. After bottoming out at about 2.5 million in the early 1990s, the number of high school seniors has been climbing and peaked this year at 3,340,235. It should start dropping next year and continue to decline through the class of 2014.

Those numbers have made this college application season the most brutal on record. In 1986, Ohio State accepted any Ohio high school graduate. This year, it probably will reject half of its 21,657 aspiring freshmen. Meanwhile, Harvard accepted an all-time- low 7.1 percent of its 27,462 hopefuls.

Tuition increases. And when today's seniors do get into a selective college, they have to confront unexpected financial worries. True, several of the nation's most elite schools have announced increases in financial aid to lure the best students. And the government will increase the maximum federal Pell grant (aimed at families earning $50,000 or less) by a healthy $421 this fall. But aid hasn't kept up with tuition increases. At the same time, dropping home values have eliminated equity that many parents had planned to tap. And lenders have pulled back from private educational loans.

So the majority of '08ers face higher tuition bills with fewer funding options. "There is no easy answer anymore," says Linda Taylor, a private financial aid consultant in Camarillo, Calif.

So what can they do? Pinch pennies. Work hard. And compromise. That's how Suzanne and David French of Leesport, Pa., will manage in September when three of their four children will be in college. David will keep working for a landscaper during the week and at Sam's Club at night and on weekends. Suzanne may supplement her job as support staff for a local school with a second job as well. They may also take out another plus loan.

But the Frenches are careful not to sacrifice too much. They won't touch their retirement savings. And they make sure their children don't mortgage their futures with debt. "I don't have a problem with them paying their part. I have a problem with kids graduating with $40,000 in debt," Suzanne says. Her kids take summer and campus jobs to cover their own books, clothing, and personal expenses—;about $4,000 a year. They also take the maximum in Stafford loans, contributing an additional $3,500 to $5,500 a year to tuition.