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N.E. college students facing a growing burden of debt

Cost called prohibitive to middle, lower class

Families of students attending college in New England are taking on far more debt than they did a decade ago and spending a much greater share of their income on private college in particular, a new study says.

Officials at the think tank MassINC, which is releasing the study on rising college costs today, said the cost of a private college is increasingly prohibitive for the middle class as well as students from low-income families. The report plays into a growing concern that it's getting tougher for many young people to pursue the American dream of a college education and a professional career, Boston-area higher education officials said.

''How we educate our young people is how we are going to be creative and entrepreneurial and cure cancer," said Seamus Harreys, dean of student financial services at Northeastern. ''If there are fewer opportunities, then the nation itself hurts."

The study, authored by Harvard Graduate School of Education professor Bridget Terry Long, analyzed federal data on college costs between 1992 and 1993 and between 2003 and 2004. Among the study's findings:

The average debt for a fourth-year student at a private college in New England grew 49 percent in inflation-adjusted dollars, to $23,491.

The average debt for a fourth-year student at a public four-year college grew 39 percent, to $15,399.

The share of a family's annual income that went toward paying for private college in New England -- after financial aid grants were factored in -- grew from a quarter to a third.

The share of income needed for a public four-year college grew from 18 percent to 21 percent. For community colleges, the share grew only a hair, from 16 to 17 percent.

Parents took out more loans. Nationwide, parents' loans under one federal program, the PLUS loans, grew 64 percent for fourth-year students at public colleges (to $12,659) and 113 percent at private colleges (to $19,468).

The debt picture is incomplete, MassINC officials said, because available data do not include many private education loans or other debt a family takes on to pay for college, through home equity loans or credit cards.

The cost of private schools is particularly important in Massachusetts because far more students from Massachusetts attend private colleges and universities -- 43 percent in the Bay State compared with 26 percent nationally, MassINC officials said.

''If we as a region have all of our private institutions out of reach . . . I think it's another reason families might decide not to stay in Massachusetts," said Ian Bowles, president of MassINC. The data about loans, he said, made him think about his own infant daughter's future education.

''I'm thinking to myself, 'What am I going to do?' " Bowles said.

The rising tuition in public universities stems from declining state appropriations, but for both public and private institutions, the study also cites a substantial increase in colleges' spending per student, for everything from salaries and benefits for an aging faculty to state-of-the art gymnasiums.

Higher-education specialists say it's hard to provide realistic answers to the problem of rising costs, especially since many private universities have no trouble finding students willing to pay tuition. Most student advocates call for more need-based aid from government and institutions alike.

As for why the cost of college is outpacing income, Harreys primarily blamed state and federal government for their declining support for higher education. Some specialists also blame private universities' practice of using a chunk of limited financial aid funds for merit scholarships so they can enroll the most attractive students regardless of whether those students need help. That leaves less money for those who simply need the aid.

Even winning a merit scholarship doesn't solve the financial crunch for some families. Margaret and Neill Sleeper of Natick believe that after working hard and doing very well in high school, their son Tom deserves to go to the private school of his choice, Assumption College in Worcester. Tom won an $11,000 merit scholarship from Assumption. But the only other aid Assumption will provide on top of that is a $2,425 unsubsidized loan, Margaret Sleeper said.

With tuition and room and board at Assumption close to $36,000, the Sleepers will have to come up with $22,000, excluding money for books and other expenses. Margaret earns $35,000 a year as an administrative assistant, Neill $45,000 as a network engineer at a computer company. Neill earned an unusual amount of overtime last year, about $20,000, which may have hurt their prospects for more aid. Tom and his young brother Ryan go to a $7,400-a-year parochial school, although Ryan has chosen to attend public school next year.

The family is now contacting the Boy Scouts, Rotary Club, and any other group that might offer scholarships. And they are planning to take out a large loan.

''We are beside ourselves," Margaret Sleeper said. ''We live week to week, and we weren't able to put any money aside."

Justin Breton, a high school senior from North Vassalboro, Maine, with his heart set on Boston University, also is in a financial predicament as college looms. Breton said he probably has lower grades than the average senior admitted to BU. He believes that's why the only aid offered by the university was a $3,125 loan. Boston University acknowledges that academic performance factors into its financial aid packages.

Breton is so determined to go to BU that he set up a page on eBay to ask for donations. He said his parents will scrape together $10,000 and whatever is left, he'll borrow. ''It's scary thinking about it," he said. ''I'll be nervous when I leave school if I don't find that job right away."

Marcella Bombardieri can be reached at bombardieri@globe.com.

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