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Collecting cash for college As tuition, other costs rise, Holland seniors appeal to businesses to help pay the bill

Meet Carrie Boldt and Laura Roberts.

They would like help paying for college.

Daunted by the jaw-dropping cost of higher education, the two seniors from Holland High School mailed dozens of letters to area businesses -- car dealerships, law firms, The Buffalo News -- asking for contributions to help pay for their dream of going to school at New York University.

Retail price: $47,000 a year.

"We were advised to deny our acceptance based on the financial burden, but we are determined as ever to lower our cost of attendance," they wrote. "We are asking you now to invest in our dream."

An unusual way to raise money for college, for sure, but college-bound students and their parents can relate.

As Tuesday's deadline nears for deciding where to enroll in the fall, families as much as ever are up against that age-old question: How to pay?

Average annual cost of tuition, fees, room and board at four-year public universities rose to $12,796 this year -- a 23 percent jump from five years ago when adjusting for inflation, a survey of 2006-07 prices by the College Board shows.

At four-year private schools, costs are up 11 percent, but the sticker price averages $30,367 a year -- more than double what state residents pay at public institutions, the survey shows.

Experts, meanwhile, are worried that financial aid, specifically aid from the federal government, isn't keeping pace.

"My greatest area of concern are those lower-income and low- to middle-income categories, who are not necessarily willing to borrow," said Patricia Steele, a research consultant for the College Board.

For instance: A family of four with one student in college and earning more than $57,000 a year isn't eligible for any aid through the federal government's Pell Grant, the primary federal subsidy for low-income students, said Mark Morlock, an Amherst financial adviser and college consultant. "We can't keep taking 5 [percent] to 6 percent increases in college costs, because family incomes aren't going up 5 [percent] to 6 percent a year. It has to stop or slow down somewhere."

"It's ridiculous," Roberts said. "But they can do it, because they can. You have to go to college if you want to get a good job."

Touring Manhattan earlier in their high school years, Roberts and Boldt fell in love with NYU and its Washington Square campus.

Roberts, who carries a 3.8 grade point average, and Boldt, who is ranked third in her class with a 4.0 average, were ecstatic when they were accepted.

Then they realized how little financial aid they would get.

NYU offered Boldt $7,000 a year and Roberts $4,000, leaving them and their families to make up the huge financial gap.

Tuition and fees come to $35,283 a year at NYU, while room and board is $11,780.

"I thought getting in was going to be the tough part," Roberts said.

Steele attributed higher college costs to some of the same factors driving costs to do business everywhere -- sky-rocketing utility payments and employee health care, for example.

Many colleges and universities, furthermore, are erecting new academic buildings, campus housing and recreational facilities to stay competitive. Those costs often trickle down to the students.

But Steele and Morlock caution that sticker price can be misleading, because most students qualify for some type of government or institutional aid -- essentially a discount.

On average, full-time students enrolled at four-year public schools received $3,100 in grants and tax benefits, bringing down the actual average cost to $9,696 a year, according to the College Board survey.

At four-year private colleges -- where more aid is handed out from the institution -- students receive an average of $9,000 in "free money," dropping the average annual price to $21,367 a year.

"I like to remind people there is a huge array of postsecondary opportunities that are quite affordable," Steele said. "They're not all supercompetitive and superexpensive."

When parents hear what they actually will owe, Morlock said, they're usually relieved -- but not entirely.

"Nine out of 10 people that come into my office are not ready to cover their current college expenses," Morlock said. "It came too quickly. They didn't have time to save."

Roberts and Boldt, co-captains of the girls varsity soccer team, also were accepted at Hofstra University on Long Island and were offered substantial financial aid packages.

But their dream is NYU, the school ranked as the No. 1 "dream" college for three straight years in a student poll by the Princeton Review.

"We'd regret it so much if we got in and didn't go," Boldt said.

So, the two sat at Starbucks on weekends filling out some 80 scholarship applications apiece.

Then, Missy Wagner, Boldt's guidance counselor, recalled a former student who sought sponsorship from local businesses to travel abroad as part of an educational program.

Could it work for Boldt and Roberts?

"We thought we'd see if any business in the area would be willing to help," Wagner said.

The two typed a letter asking for a contribution toward their education, attached their acceptance letters and mailed it to some 60 area businesses.

So far, no luck.

But that hasn't killed their plans to attend NYU in the fall.

"We're going to take out loans," Roberts said, "What else are you going to do?"

Not surprisingly, college debt is on the rise, too.

For graduating seniors with student loans, debt levels more than doubled to $19,200, between 1993 and 2004, according to the nonprofit Project on Student Debt.

Boldt, who wants to study forensic psychology, figures on owing about $100,000 by the time she graduates.

Roberts, who is interested in international relations, expects her debt to be even more.

But they say they hope by being in Manhattan, they will land good jobs after college to help them pay off their loans.

"Then," Boldt said, "we'll start our own college scholarship fund."

e-mail: jrey@buffnews.com

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