The numbers get real

Parents of highs chool seniors are getting financial-aid estimates this month, and for many families, the numbers are staggering.

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Tommy DeMarco ate dinner with his parents, Greg and Ann, at their home in St. Paul. College costs are giving many families financial indigestion.

Photo: Renee Jones Schneider, Star Tribune

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Greg DeMarco had filled out the federal financial-aid worksheet a couple of days before. The computer had crunched the numbers, and now DeMarco was steeling himself for the answer. A few clicks of the mouse, and he would see how much the federal government thought he could contribute next year toward his son's college education.

A cousin had warned him that the number would be shocking. And it was.

When DeMarco saw it, he laughed out loud and called to his wife, Ann, in their St. Paul kitchen.

"Guess what they think we can spend?" he said.

The number was staggeringly high -- more than the $36,000 annual cost at the most expensive college on his son Tommy's list.

The DeMarcos aren't rich. He works in publishing, and she's a school psychologist. They're among many middle-class parents who this spring find themselves deep in the sometimes alarming world of college finance.

It's a world where tuition and room-and-board prices seem to have little connection to what average families can pay.

More students than ever before are expected to start college this fall. For those kids and their families, this is the time when the numbers start getting real. Expected family contributions bounce back from the feds; schools calculate how much aid they can give you. March is when students and parents begin to figure out how -- and if -- they're going to pay for the school of their dreams.

Prices have been going steadily up.

In the past decade, tuition and fees at the University of Minnesota and at four-year state universities have increased 112 percent. Tuition and fees at private colleges have gone up an average of 73 percent.

For a Minnesota undergraduate who lives on campus, the cost of attending the U's Twin Cities campus is about $19,300 each year. At Carleton College in Northfield, it's more than $44,000.

When those figures drew incredulous whistles from seniors at Richfield High School who gathered to learn about financial aid, a counselor calmed them by saying that no one writes a check to pay the full price for college.

Actually, a few people do. But, like the DeMarcos, most families rely on a combination of sources to pay for college.

Wary of debt

Tommy DeMarco has narrowed his college choices from six to two: the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul and the U's Twin Cities campus.

Both offered him scholarships, which narrowed the difference in cost to about $7,000 a year. That has made his decision harder. He had been leaning toward private schools until the U offered him a scholarship.

Tommy is an award-winning student, musician and athlete at Cretin-Derham Hall High School. He was thrilled to be admitted to the U's Carlson School of Management, which has a high and rising reputation among business schools. But he's intrigued by St. Thomas' global studies and peace-and-justice programs.

Money is a big part of his deliberations, though he and his parents say it will not be the determining factor. The DeMarcos are savers. But much of their educational savings has gone to parochial schools for Tommy and his brother. They'll pay for college with a combination of savings, scholarships, work study and, reluctantly, loans.

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