Private colleges try to stay affordable

If your son or daughter is accepted at Yale this year, you probably won't have to borrow a dime to pay for that Ivy League education, thanks to Yale's expanded financial aid for middle- and upper-middle-income families.

But don't start learning the Whiffenpoof Song just yet. Only a fraction of extraordinary students manage to gain admission to Yale, which hasn't raised the size of its freshman class in 40 years, even as applications have soared. The same is true for other elite schools that have also liberalized their aid plans. Harvard, which will provide aid to families with incomes of up to $180,000, has received 27,000 applications. The number of freshman slots? About 1,650.

Generous new financial initiatives from Yale, Harvard, the University of Pennsylvania and some other elite schools have drawn renewed attention to the plight of families struggling to afford college. But what if you can't get into one of these brutally selective schools? Though some other private colleges have taken modest steps to aid more families, they can't begin to match the Ivies' financial bounty. Most middle-class families, experts say, won't find any additional aid on the table, and some schools might feel compelled to reduce aid for low-income students.

Take Nancy Smerkanich, who works for a pharmaceutical company in Wayne, Pa. Her daughter, Natalie, who will start college this fall, has narrowed her choices to a few out-of-state public colleges.

Natalie plans to apply for scholarships to help with the cost, which will far exceed the cost of a state school. Smerkanich also plans to seek federal financial aid. But her expectations are low. When the Smerkaniches applied for aid for their older daughter, Kyra, four years ago, they qualified only for student loans. When Kyra graduates this year from American University in Washington, D.C., she'll be weighed down by about $107,000 in loans, of which her parents will pay half, Smerkanich says.

Smerkanich says she and her husband, a public school teacher, have saved diligently in a 529 plan for their daughters' education. It's still not enough.

"We've done so much, and our kids are still taking out substantial loans," Smerkanich says. "If this is a stretch for us, how do other people do it?"

Some aid analysts worry that some private schools, to try to stay competitive with the Ivies, will use more of their endowments to attract the best and brightest students. Those students are likely to come from relatively well-off families.

That approach "could take resources from the same pot of money that really should be going to low-income students," warns Robert Shireman, president of the Institute for College Access & Success, a non-profit organization.

Looming in the background are fears that the economic downturn could force states to cut funding for state colleges and universities, which could lead to sharp increases in tuition. More than 65% of full-time undergraduate students — including a majority of low-income students — attend state colleges and universities. A 2006 study by the Center for the Study of Education Policy at Illinois State University found that state funding for higher education declined during three of the past four recessions. After the 2001 recession, the study found, state appropriations for higher education fell 8.6%.

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