This year, money is the driving factor for a growing number of high school seniors, who are spreading out the acceptance letters and crunching the numbers to decide what colleges to attend this fall.

Cost of college has high school seniors weighing their options

Mike Maietta was eating lunch when he got a text message from his mom.

“Notre Dame,” it said. “Big envelope!”

Mike, a senior in high school, whooped for joy. The big envelope meant the storied Catholic university in South Bend, Ind., had offered him a coveted slot in its Class of 2013. But the $51,300 annual price tag is a formidable obstacle. So Mike and his parents are considering offers from several other colleges and calculating the costs — tuition, housing, holiday trips home.

This year, money is the driving factor for a growing number of high school seniors, who are spreading out the acceptance letters and crunching the numbers to decide what colleges to attend this fall.

Layoffs, plunging home values and decimated college savings accounts have vastly changed family finances.

“We’re ecstatic that Mike got into so many great schools,” said Michael Maietta, his father, an engineer at Microsoft. “But if you consider going to school out of state, you’ve got to think about all of the other costs: moving, flying back and forth for the holidays. You’re looking at about $3,000 a year just for travel.”

More than 7.6 million students have filled out the FAFSA, or Free Application for Federal Student Aid, a 19.9 percent increase over last year.

The federal Department of Education this month urged college financial aid officers to give more help to families suffering from the recession. And a record 30,428 students applied for 2,300 slots at Stanford, in part because the university boosted financial aid for families earning below $100,000.

Students have until May 1 to decide on a school, and many campuses require “matriculation deposits” up to $400 to secure their slots for the fall. As families weigh their options, some are going back to financial aid offices in hopes that packages can be boosted.

“The most heartbreaking appeals at this point are from families where parents are just being told about layoffs in the last few weeks,” said Karen Cooper, director of financial aid at Stanford. “Even those who thought they had a plan in place are scrambling to come up with new options.”

Mary Nucciarone, an assistant director of financial aid at Notre Dame, said several families of admitted students are asking the university to consider new information.

“Loss of bonus income, loss of home equity, decrease in assets, mortgages underwater,” she said. “People are coming back to us and saying, ‘Did you consider this?’“

Mike Maietta got into eight colleges, and narrowed his top choices to a final five: Notre Dame, Vanderbilt, Loyola Marymount, Gonzaga and the University of San Diego.

As the Maiettas turn the options over in their minds, numerous factors come into play. Loyola Marymount and Gonzaga offered Mike partial scholarships, but Notre Dame and Vanderbilt did not.

Loyola, in Los Angeles, is within driving distance. But the cost of housing at Gonzaga, in Spokane, Wash., is slightly cheaper.

“Fifty thousand dollars a year is a lot of money,” said Mike, who wants to study mechanical engineering. “I’d like to go to Notre Dame or Vanderbilt, but I can see myself at LMU.”

By Dana Hull / McClatchy Tribune