Higher Education: Perils and Possibilities

When Stephanie Riddel graduated from Milford High School with her acceptance letter from Northeastern University in hand, she was confident about what was coming next in her life.

At the time she didn’t give much thought to the cost of studying at a private institution.

Riddel planned to pay for college the way most students pay for college … through a combination of loans, savings and some help from mom and dad. But when she had to fork over $5,000 cash in her first semester, only a part of the more than $45,000 she would have to pay for her first year of school, she realized just how much money the education she had chosen would cost.

"The numbers were far away until the tuition payment came," she said in a recent interview. "I naively went into college thinking, ‘I will be able to pay for it somehow.’ I don’t know where I thought the money would come from." Even with scholarships, financial aid and a federal work-study program, coming up with the money was a struggle, so Riddel started looking at other options, including some local alternatives.

She learned about the new Mobile Alternative Program at Daniel Webster College when she visited the school’s Web site.

"It was the light at the end of the tunnel," she said.

Daniel Webster is a small private school in Nashua that specializes in science, technology, engineering and mathematics … commonly known as STEM … and is also nationally recognized for its aviation program.

Tuition at Daniel Webster for full-time students for the 2008-09 school year was $26,357. Under MAP, local incoming students will pay $15,000 for the 2009-10 school year.

The program is only open to students who graduate from high schools in southern New Hampshire and who are willing to stay at home for their freshman year … they have to live with a parent or guardian to be eligible … and will commute daily to school.

Daniel Webster is trying to offer a private college education to students who otherwise might not be able to afford it, said Michael Quinn, vice president of advancement at the college.

"We realized that as much as parents and students want to go down the traditional road of going away to college … it’s become part of the American dream to be able to save and then send your children away to college … but in extraordinary economic times the option of sending a child away to school could become a hardship or become impossible," he said.

Students are also taking a harder look at the amount of debt they accrue while in school, which is making them take a second look at their options, he said.

Quinn said the college tried to set tuition for MAP students within the range of public colleges and universities in order to give more students the option of a private education.

Daniel Webster’s program is similar to the Advantage Program at Southern New Hampshire University, where students attend classes in the morning at the school’s Nashua and Salem centers at a cost of $10,000 a year, compared to $24,624 for students who attend classes at the main campus in Manchester.

The Advantage Program has been so successful that the school plans to extend it to its Seacoast Center in the fall, said spokesman Gregg Mazzola.

With recent tuition increases at both public and private institutions, many high school graduates and their parents are taking a harder look at college costs.

According to Tony Pals, a spokesman for the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities, tuition has increased six percent a year over the past ten years at private institutions. Increases in energy, health care, technology and insurance costs all played in a role in the upswing, he said. The cost of maintaining and modernizing facilities is also a big driver of cost increases.

For the coming 2009-10 school year, the average tuition increase is 4.2 percent, which is the lowest it’s been in years, he said.

At the same time, private institutions are offering more aid to students. Over the past 10 years institutional aid … which includes need and merit based aid in the form of grants and scholarships — has increased by 250 percent, said Pals.

Given the tenuous economic situation many families are finding themselves in, many private colleges are looking at ways to make an education more affordable.

But the commuter model used by Daniel Webster and Southern New Hampshire isn’t how most institutions are lowering costs.

"This is unique, from what we’re seeing," said Pals. "It’s clear that there is a major affordability push underway across the country with institutions taking many different types of innovative measures."

Schools aren’t ready to do away with the traditional model of college life … students living on campus. There are many benefits to that model that most students still want.

Stephanie Riddel knows there are some things she’ll miss by living at home next year. She said she’ll miss the diversity at Northeastern, and she’ll miss living with other engineering students who she can go to in the middle of the night with homework questions.

But she’s excited for the smaller class sizes at Daniel Webster and she plans to get involved on campus as much as possible. And her mom and sister are excited to have her home again.
Plus, now she knows she can afford to keep going to school.

"It takes a strain off to not have to worry about money so much," she said. (unionleader.com)

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