Each afternoon this spring, Brennan Jackson, an A-student who ranks near the top of his high school class, has arrived at his guidance counselor’s office to intercept the latest scholarship applications, as if they were a newspaper landing on his front stoop.
Because his father is out of work and his mother works only part time, Brennan has set an ambitious goal for himself: to raise the $25,000 he still needs for his freshman year at the University of California, Berkeley, by stitching together a quilt of merit scholarships.
“We need to spread our resources as far as possible,” he said the other night, over a family dinner of reheated eggplant parmigiana. “I guess I feel a little responsible.”
The stress has taken its toll: Brennan’s guidance counselor blames it for the boy’s thinning hair, and Brennan points to his scholarship search as the cause of a recent outbreak of acne.
While Brennan’s situation, and the remedy he is pursuing, may sound extremely ambitious, guidance counselors across the country say they can recall no prior year in which so many applicants’ families have been squeezed by so many financial pressures.
Not only have families’ incomes been falling as their savings have dwindled, but also tuition has been rising — including proposed increases of nearly 10 percent next year throughout the University of California system. (Brennan would face bills nearly as high as Berkeley’s at the University of California campuses in Los Angeles and Davis, the only other colleges to accept him; Stanford, a private university that typically offers full scholarships to families with incomes under $60,000, rejected him. Berkeley offered him only $212 in scholarship money.)
While private colleges have vowed to protect financial aid in hard times, some of the most reliable independent scholarship programs have been reduced or discontinued this year — including some that lost portions of their endowments to Bernard L. Madoff’s vast Ponzi scheme — further raising the competition for those that remain.
Interest rates on student loans, including on popular federal programs like the unsubsidized Stafford (now nearly 7 percent) and Parent Plus (8.5 percent), are running several percentage points higher than the rates on secured loans, like home equity lines of credit.
“The difference of rates between secured and unsecured loans is higher than I have ever seen,” said Scott White, director of counseling services at Westfield High School in New Jersey. “This is one further impediment to access to post-secondary education for all but the well-to-do.”
Judy Campbell, Brennan’s guidance counselor at Hollywood High School, where three of every four students qualify for a free or reduced-price lunch, suggested that his family is “not poor enough for need-based aid, and not rich enough to write a check.”
When asked over dinner whether she felt guilty that Brennan had taken so much upon himself, his mother, Caryn, began to cry. “We didn’t expect to end up in this situation,” she said.
Tuition, board and other expenses at Berkeley are estimated at $27,000. Last year, the family’s income was $58,000, when Caryn Jackson’s wages from teaching were combined with revenue from a portion of a rental property. The family cannot sell the property because it does not own it outright, and Campbell believes that the investment reduced the direct aid Brennan might have received.
Brennan’s father, Aaron, who was laid off as an accountant more than a year ago, acknowledged that his son had few options. He said his lack of steady income prevented the family from refinancing the $500,000 mortgage on its cramped, nearly 90-year-old, two-bedroom home or taking on additional debt.
Aaron Jackson said his job search had been frustrating: He said he had been deemed overqualified for some jobs in recent months, and underqualified for others. His previous job with a real estate company paid about $75,000 annually.
Which is not to say that the family hasn’t been doing its part to offset its expenses.
They have reduced visits to the dentist from twice a year, to once; saved $45 a month in groomers’ fees by trimming the hair of their two dogs themselves; returned one of their cars, a Honda CRV on a lease, to the dealer; stopped eating in restaurants; and deferred home repairs.
As May 1, the day his $100 deposit was due at Berkeley, was drawing near, Brennan said he had netted about $1,500 in outside scholarships, mostly from the California Scholarship Federation, a statewide organization. He is also a finalist for a scholarship from the Rotary Club of Los Angeles that could be worth $2,000. And he was preparing to submit his application for a $5,000 grant from an organization called DREAMS. (Developing a Responsible, Educated and Moral Society). “Five thousand dollars isn’t a small contribution,” Brennan said. But even with that infusion, he said, his situation “would still be problematic.”
He said he had been filling out two applications a night, most of them requiring original essays, for more than month.
The only part-time jobs he has found are as a baby sitter and as a student poll worker in a statewide special election in mid-May. (His pay for that day’s work — which, a form letter from the county clerk assured, “looks great on college/scholarship applications” — will be $105.)
While many of the scholarship organizations will not send out their decisions until later this spring, or even in the summer, Brennan said he knew he could tap one additional source should he come up short: the $15,000 remaining in a college savings account his father had established for him, which had been worth upward of $30,000 less than a year ago. The problem, Brennan said, was that the account was intended to last four years.
Then there is the matter of his sister, Elise, 16, a junior who will be applying to college next year, meaning his parents will have two children in college at the same time for three years.
Asked whether she had a preliminary plan of attack, Elise said she did: to gain admission to a wealthy, highly selective private college that, unlike the California system, might pay her tuition in full.