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More students choosing colleges based on price


When times were better, Susan and David Bersie considered sending their only son to an East Coast college where he could enjoy a traditional four-year education and broaden his life experiences — an opportunity that his mom says she missed out on.

But as Jake Bersie, 18, nears the end of senior year at Carmel Catholic High School in Mundelein, Ill., the family faces an entirely different scenario. David was laid off from his marketing sales job in November. Susan is struggling to keep her small medical supplies business afloat.

They are divorced but united in making sure Jake pursues a higher education. They now consider a local junior college as the most viable option. Sending Jake to college has always been “non-negotiable,” said Susan Bersie, who attended college one year before leaving to help her parents run a business. “Everyone else did in my family and I didn’t, so it was really important for me that he goes. Now ... I can’t even afford at this point to put him in a junior college.”

For families mulling college options, affordability is weighing more heavily than it has in years, officials say. The federal stimulus approved last month promises more financial aid for college, but it’s unclear what impact it will have.

“Illinois students who may have applied to elite colleges — they are still applying there but are also applying to financially feasible schools, such as state schools,” said Jean Childers, a career center assistant at Naperville Central High School.

“What we don’t want is a student to apply for five great schools, get accepted into all of them and then have Mom and Dad saying, ‘Oh, my gosh, we thought you would get a lot more in scholarships,’ ’’ Childers said. “Scholarship dollars have dried up at many schools.”

Over the last year, high school seniors have applied to an average of 7.3 universities and colleges — up from 5.4 the prior year — as they try to ensure getting accepted into a school they can afford, said Craig Powell, CEO of ConnectEDU, a college planner.

“We have seen 60 to 65 percent of students are applying to public versus private schools,” Powell said. “A year ago, that was just the inverse.”

Ilana Strauss, 18, a senior at Deerfield High School, is a National Merit finalist who is looking at colleges she had never considered before. The reason: their affordability. The University of Alabama wasn’t her first choice, but she applied because it offers full scholarships. “I am probably going to have to take out some student loans,” said Strauss, who is still waiting to hear from other colleges. “I am definitely going to be working through school.”

Two years ago, Christin Okamoto, 19, of Lindenhurst, turned down a free year of tuition at an Illinois college because she wanted to attend the University of Wisconsin at Madison. But three semesters later, she has moved back home to attend the College of Lake County to save money.

“I just couldn’t keep up with it,” Okamoto said.

She loved the University of Wisconsin but plans to apply to Illinois colleges when she is ready for nursing school.

As the recession deepens, a parent’s illness can have an even greater impact on a student’s ability to attend a desired school. Vivian Bryant-Schumacher, 48, of Rolling Meadows, Ill., always assumed she would return to a high-paying job she left when her children were young. But because of muscular dystrophy, she has not, and that has limited her son’s options.

“We have always planned for our kids to go through college,” she said. “I put myself through school. My husband got a master’s degree. But then I got sick in 2000.”

Her medical bills gobble up at least $30,000 of the family’s $100,000 income, she said.

Her son Charlie Schumacher, 18, turned down acceptance offers from the University of Illinois, the University of Wisconsin, Purdue University, Northern Illinois University and Boston University. Instead, he hopes to transfer to a four-year university after completing core requirements at Harper Community College in Palatine, Ill., where he gets free tuition because of his academic record.

“It was just kind of frustrating because at this age, like all kids, I just wanted to get out of the house,” said Schumacher. But after comparing notes with a friend at the University of Illinois, he found they were working on the same material for chemistry class. “I’m not bummed out about that anymore,” he said.

David Bersie said he is disappointed that he cannot afford to send his son Jake to a four-year school right now, but “the economy has really put the hurt on me.”

Jake, who hopes to open a cigar shop, said he understands. “It’s not his fault,” he said. “The market is just horrible.”