Colleges get an ‘F' in finances

I started college this week – Barnard, on a full scholarship. I never thought I'd feel lucky that my parents have virtually no income. I live with my mom, who is a full-time student; my dad teaches part time.

Although I'd like to think my scholarship is merit-based, were my parents more comfortably middle class, I would not have been so fortunate. And without a scholarship, there's no way I could afford a school such as Barnard.

The situation is more complicated for my friend E.G., who will be a freshman at his first-choice school this fall, Johns Hopkins University. He was at my house when his dad text-messaged me, asking that I pass along that his ACT score had come – 34 out of a perfect 36. Last year, he competed in the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair with a project in which he figured out how to extract a chemical from sassafras root that treats parasites in beehives and could prevent colony-collapse disorder.

His parents met in South Korea, where his father was based during his U.S. military service. His mom is an overnight supervisor for Kmart, and his dad is a civil engineer working with flood relief/recovery operations in the Air National Guard.

Too much, but not enough

E.G. got some scholarship money, but he's having trouble coming up with his share of the costs for one year – $30,875. Their household income is too much to qualify for substantial financial aid, but not enough to pay that amount. In other words, being middle class makes it nearly impossible to afford the college of your choice, even if you get in.

The latest U.S. census figures put the median household income in 2006 at $48,200. According to the College Board, the average tuition at a public four-year college is $6,185; for a private one, $23,712. Many top-tier universities are edging up on $40,000. The total cost – room and board, books, transportation – at E.G.'s college for the 2008-09 year is $52,578.

This year, according to the Bureau of Economic Analysis, the average American's savings may be near .0 percent of their disposable income. This means that in a startling number of households, college is even more out of reach, even without an unexpected expense such as a mother with cancer, a grandparent who requires live-in help or even dental work or repairs on the car that a parent needs to get to work.

Combine that with the difficult economic times and it makes little sense to me that financial-aid policies consider an income large enough to pay the bulk of tuition large enough to afford it. Colleges need to recognize the difference between the two.

Excluding the middle class

An annual college bill that exceeds the median household income, and an income level set too low for families like E.G.'s to qualify for aid, seem designed to exclude the middle class.

With the $30,875 that E.G. is responsible for each year, he says that by the time he's a junior, he will have dried up all the money his father has saved over 25-plus years. I asked him how his 15-year-old sister was going to pay for college. He said he would “make it back” and help her.

Although the thought is sweet, the reality is that when E.G. graduates, even if he gets a high-paying job, he will have massive loans to deal with. The American college undergraduate leaves with an average of $20,000 in student debt, and many have loans that are much higher.

Academically, colleges know there are indicators that help give a more complete picture of whether a student will thrive at their schools. These factors can be far from – even contradict – a standardized test score or GPA. That's why the admissions process includes essays and interviews. Economically, colleges have to apply the same reasoning and recognize that a family's financial profile on paper often says very little about what that family can afford. .