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Adam Courtney, the valedictorian at Hutchinson-Central Technical High School, has a three-tiered plan for dealing with the soaring cost of college.

His first choice for next fall is Harvard University, where only 11 percent of the applicants are admitted. Even more daunting is the Ivy League school's price tag: about $32,000 a year. Adam figures he needs roughly $25,000 each year in financial aid and outside scholarships to pull it off.

If that doesn't happen, Adam will aim for the University of Pittsburgh, where costs total $20,400, and where -- unlike Harvard -- academic scholarships are available in addition to financial aid.

His third option is to study sciences at the University at Buffalo, where students can get by for $4,340 if they live at home or for $10,014 if they stay in a dormitory and take part in a meal plan.

"One way or another, I will not let it bother me," said Adam, a South Buffalo resident who earned a 96.8 average in Hutch-Tech's biomedical technology program. "You can win the Nobel Prize or the Pulitzer Prize without going to a school with a big name."

The class of '98 is getting a crash course in economics.

Tuition and fees at four-year colleges and universities last year increased by an average of 5 percent, triple the rate of inflation, according to the College Board. Tuition has more than doubled since 1976, even considering inflation.

Yearly costs -- including room and board and fees -- now average $21,400 at private schools and more than $10,000 at
public universities. Many prestigious private schools charge more than $30,000 a year, or nearly $130,000 for a four-year degree.

And an overwhelming majority of local high school graduates will grapple with that issue. In Erie, Niagara and Wyoming counties, 11,583 students graduated from public and private high schools in 1996, and 79.6 percent of them went on to two-year or four-year colleges.

In a series of interviews, 11 seniors at Hutch-Tech, Lancaster High School and Kenmore West Senior High School outlined a variety of strategies.

Allan Leeper, a Senior Council member at Hutch-Tech, said he will apply to several small, private schools in North Carolina and Ohio and probably attend the one that offers the best financial-aid package.

"My mother always tells me: 'Go where the money is,' " Allan said.

But while financial aid last year reached a record level of $55 billion, aid per student is growing at half the rate of tuition, the College Board estimates.

Edward Jackson Jr., Hutch-Tech's senior class president, has long dreamed of attending Morehouse College, a predominantly African-American school in Atlanta. That depends not only on getting accepted, but also on receiving a hefty financial-aid package.

"I do have my heart set on going to Morehouse, but if it doesn't work out that way I'll just have to deal with it," Edward said. "It's just like life. You don't always get exactly what you want."

While loans may be available, Edward, who will study psychology, is wary of starting his professional career in debt.

"To me, loans are very scary," he said. "I don't want to worry about paying anything off."

Maria Wojtowicz, a member of the Science Olympiads team at Lancaster High School, plans to avoid the financial crunch by attending UB's well-regarded architecture school. By living at home, she hopes to save enough to attend graduate school at Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

And Deborah Rolfe, a Hutch-Tech senior, plans to stay within budget and avoid the stresses of leaving town by studying social work at Buffalo State College, which is within walking distance of her West Side home.

"I have it very well at home," she said. "My mom's not going to be on me about this and that. As long as I tell her what I'm doing, that's OK."

Finances are hardly the only concern facing college-bound seniors.

They are trying to determine what colleges best suit their interests and abilities, taking or retaking standardized tests to complete or improve their applications and preparing to tackle the essay questions required by most colleges.

In addition, the seniors said, they are trying to keep up their grades while taking part in sports or extracurricular activities and holding down part-time jobs.

"This is a very competitive school," said Leah Russo, a Kenmore West student who plans to study theater at a state school or Niagara University. "People are always talking about grades or where they're going to college. You always feel like you have to keep up."

The slick college brochures that inundate high school juniors and seniors are daily reminders that a big decision is at hand, but they often cloud the issue.

"It's impossible to get to know the school from that," Leah said. "It really confuses you."

Megan Simmons, captain of the swim team at Kenmore West, pored through college guide books, then visited 20 schools in New England, Ohio and New York State.

She prefers small liberal arts schools with Division III swim teams and is eager to attend an out-of-town school for "the whole experience of being on your own and growing up a little bit."

Other students are focusing on schools that provide familiarity and a comfort level. For example:

Joanna Lesinski took part in a weeklong business institute last summer at Gannon University in Erie, Pa., and would like to return there to study accounting.

"We got to see the campus, stay in the dorms and meet some of the students," said Joanna, a member of the Lancaster tennis team. "I really enjoyed it there."

Rich Reese, who plans a career in the building trades, zeroed in on Alfred State College of Technology after visiting the campus with a vocational education class.

"It caught my eye," said Rich, a Lancaster varsity soccer player and volunteer firefighter. "It has a really good program."

Vinny Tagliarino, a basketball player at Lancaster High School, said Fredonia State College is his first choice because it has a criminal-justice program, is out-of-town but still close to home, has an attractive campus and is affordable.

The students, while appreciative of the opportunities their high schools presented, said college is sure to offer a stiffer challenge.

"The college work is going to be a lot tougher, and I want to play football," said Mike Mikulski, a Kenmore West running back who plans to attend Canisius College. "It's going to be tough to do both of them."

Allan and Edward urged younger students to adopt that attitude long before college decisions are at hand.

"Get with the kids who are serious about what they want to do with their lives," Edward said.

"Freshman year and sophomore year, I played around, and I paid for it," Allan added. "Don't blow anything off. It all counts in the end."

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