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College-bound students get economics lessons

The troubled economy has made many families worry more about the rising cost of college. And with financial aid tightening, some students are getting a lesson in saving money.
College Paying The Bills
Robin and John Bober's college investment fund for their daughter, Ashley, has taken a hit, losing $11,000 since last fall.Carolyn Kaster / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Katelynn Simcox feels her parents have enough bills to pay off, what with an older brother in college and a younger sister just starting high school.

So the 18-year-old who is headed to Wilkes University this fall works about 13 hours a week at a drugstore to pay her own expenses as well as build her resume as an aspiring pharmacist.

The troubled economy has made many families of college-bound teens worry more about rising costs. And with the pool of financial aid tightening, some students like Simcox are getting an early lesson in saving money and thinking ahead.

"Any kind of clothes and stuff, I pay for, and (my parents) try to take care of my little sister," Simcox said during a break from study hall in the otherwise quiet cafeteria at Philipsburgh-Osceola High School. "They don't really give me a whole lot of money, so they'll pay for more of college."

Terry Feathers, a financial aid counselor at Penn State-DuBois, can sense the apprehension in the voices of parents when he does presentations at area high schools. Most are concerned about taking out more loans atop their mounting debt.

"There's no tricks. I tell you what, I wish I knew," Feathers said when asked what advice he would offer families looking for financial aid. "Apply early, get maximum consideration."

Students like Simcox are bucking a trend that has emerged over the last 10 years.

According to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics, the percentage of youth aged 16-19 in the workforce during school months had declined from 31 percent in 1998 to 24 percent in 2007 — or the year before the economy went fully into a recession.

Among school-related reasons for the decline cited in the February 2008 report were the increased frequency of advanced placement exams; an increase in higher-level courses; and community service requirements.

Other potential reasons cited were decreases in wages, and a declining share of teens holding jobs in retail trade and restaurant businesses.

Think the after-school job at the shopping mall.

How the recession might have changed patterns in youth employment during the school year remains uncertain.

For Simcox, the choice was easy. Her parents "gave me a nudge, but only because they knew I wanted to get into pharmacy," she said.

Eighty percent of her earnings goes to paying for her own things, with 20 percent dropped into a savings account she'll use to buy a new computer for college.

With six years of college and graduate work ahead, the family's plan is to split tuition costs between the parents and loans that Simcox will take out for herself.

"We haven't done financial aid yet," she said. "But we probably won't get much."

Junior Vanessa Scaife, 17, is getting an earlier head start on saving up. Beginning next week she'll work 20 to 30 hours a week helping to prepare food at a nursing home — about the same amount of hours she had at her hold job in a sewing factory.

Scaife wants to become a physcian's assistant, but plans to stay close to home for college so she can be near family. About 20 percent of her check each week goes into a savings account, at the encouragement of her parents.

She plans to work in college, too, "because to pay it off is kind of rewarding."

And those bills have been getting steeper in recent years.

The average list price for tuition and fees at four-year public colleges rose 6.4 percent this academic year to nearly $6,600, according to the College Board.

Prices at private colleges rose 5.9 percent to more than $25,000. Financial aid can reduce net costs to about $14,900, on average, at private institutions.

This year, financial aid seems to especially be at a premium. The Department of Education has reported that applications for federal aid are running slightly above last year's record pace.

Feathers has been holding financial aid information sessions at Brookville High School every year since 2000, which typically draws only about five people.

He was shocked when 47 people braved a frigid temperatures and a driving snow squall for the evening talk. Penn State recommends that first-year, transfer and graduate students submit their Free Application for Federal Student Aid by Feb. 15 to get as much consideration as possible.

Lucinda Liddington, of Brookville, is familiar with tuition bills, having finished last year her human development and family studies degree from Penn State-DuBois.

Now, it's her daughter's turn to go to college. Theresa Liddington, a high school senior, plans to attend The Art Institute of Pittsburgh to study video game design.

Liddington must begin paying off the loans for her own education in about six months, a big concern given her daughter will soon have college bills. Liddington said she pushed herself to graduate in time for her to have income to help take care of Theresa's education.

Trust your financial adviser, and try to take a look at the big picture when determining the worth of an education, she encouraged other parents.

"Possibly 10 years of loans, but a lifetime of a career," she said. "I definitely don't regret it."

Robin and John Bober, teachers at Philipsburg High School, would rather not have their 17-year-old daughter, Ashley, have to work, at least her freshman year of college. They've never pressured the senior to get a job in high school, either.

Ashley, in turn, has a transcript that could make a college admissions officer swoon: a National Merit Scholarship semifinalist; vice president of the student council; voted "Most Likely to Succeed" by her peers.

But choosing a college is rarely just about academics, especially in this economy.

The Bobers' college investment fund for their daughter has taken a hit, losing $11,000 since last fall. They've stopped contributing to that account, though they have other savings to draw on.

"We're pretty well set," John Bober said, "as long as we save while she's still in college."

Her parents' key advice to other families who might just be getting started in the process is to start saving and planning early.

Ashley, in the meantime, had yet to make up her mind on where to go to school to pursue her chemistry degree.

"He's telling her, 'We can't go to college now because the stock market last 200 or 300 points," said Robin, a computer science teacher.

"Kidding, kidding," John, a shop instructor, said as Ashley smiled nearby. "Wherever you choose, we will make it work somehow."