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Cost of college piling debt on Mass. families

BEDFORD -- Massachusetts families fell a total of $562 million short of being able to pay for college in the state last year, according to state officials, highlighting the struggle for families to afford higher education in the Bay State.

Using new data, the state Board of Higher Education has for the first time calculated unmet need, the portion of college costs a family cannot afford to pay, but that isn't covered by federal, state, or institutional grants or loans. When aid falls short, many students make up the difference with private loans they have trouble repaying.

While officials offered no solutions yesterday, a financial aid task force appointed by the board plans a series of public meetings to solicit feedback on their ideas for how the state can address the problem.

Joe Gosselin , 20, a junior at Northeastern University from Franklin, said he's not surprised by the findings. His father, a software engineer, and his mother have borrowed more than $10,000 per year since he started college. His family will be expected to pay about $20,000 next year, because his two siblings have graduated. It's much more than his family can afford, he said.

``My dad had to take money out of his 401(k) twice because during a semester we weren't given enough in [grants and student] loans to meet the amount we needed to pay," Gosselin said.

According to the study, a family with the median state income of about $69,000 can generally afford to pay about $8,000 to $10,000 a year for a student's tuition, fees, room and board, and books, according to a federal formula for calculating financial need based on income, assets, and other factors.

In 2004-2005, approximately 90 percent of low-income families from Massachusetts with students in colleges in the state had unmet need, with their median need ranging from $4,000 to $5,000. About 65 percent of middle-income families had unmet need, averaging $4,500.

For full-time students from middle-income families, the median unmet need was about $1,400 for state and community colleges, and about $4,100 for University of Massachusetts campuses. For private colleges, it was about $7,800.

The calculations are based on a new database of students from Massachusetts who applied for aid at all the public colleges and almost all the private colleges in the state, assembled by the Board of Higher Education. Bridget Terry Long , a professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, presented the analysis at the board's meeting yesterday at Middlesex Community College.

``We had a sense it was bad, but now we can say, `Here's the proof,' " Long said.

Long said that students are covering the funding gap with higher interest private loans, credit card debt, and too many hours of work outside school. Or, she said, they are not going to college at all.

Globe correspondent Michael Naughton contributed to this report. Bombardieri can be reached at bombardieri@globe.com.

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