Nationwide, some 70 percent of full-time college students receive some kind of financial aid, according to the American Council on Education. Among the students surveyed by Catalyst, the percentage is 94.

Neither number is surprising, given the high cost of a college education and the generally lower financial standing of minority families.

In Illinois this fall, the annual average cost of attending a four-year public institution is $10,709; for private schools, the cost is $22,576. Nationally, those numbers last year were $11,976 and $26,070, respectively, according to The College Board.

In the Catalyst survey group, 63 percent said financial difficulties had at least some impact on their ability to succeed in school, far more than those who cited academic problems or social isolation.

Roughly three-quarters of the group reported working at least part time while attending school, and students who worked tended to report lower grade-point averages than those who did not.

The survey group received a variety of assistance: 69 percent of students reported receiving scholarships; 71 percent, grants; 53 percent, loans; and 31 percent, work-study funds.

As one of those students noted in the focus group, “Some of us are on scholarship, some aid, but we [still] had to take out loans. You start out your adult life, and you have to climb the ladder just to be at zero.”

Nationally, 59 percent of 1999-2000 college graduates emerged with a debt load, according to the Economic Policy Institute, based in Washington, D.C. It averaged $16,000, an increase of 60 percent within a decade.

Cost played a significant role in the surveyed students’ selection of a college, too: 59 percent said cost was “very important” in their decision, while another 29 percent rated it “somewhat important.” Only 11 percent said it had no bearing on their decision.

Fears about cost may keep some students from seeking admission to top schools. “There are kids that don’t apply to a school because of the price tag without looking at the benefits,” says Andre Phillips, director of the Chicago Academic Achievement Program at the University of Chicago, where tuition and fees are now about $37,000 a year. “We provide significant assistance financially, but some students never find that out.”

Meanwhile, 27 percent of students said their high schools were “not so helpful” or “not at all helpful” with assisting them in finding and applying for financial aid, suggesting that high schools need to step up their efforts in this important area.

Helping students ferret out money is even more important at a time when state aid in Illinois is on the decline.

This year marks the first time ever that the state’s largest aid program, called MAP for Monetary Award Program, suffered cuts—$38 million. As a result, 12,000 fewer students received grants this year compared to last, and the average award fell about 5 percent, from $2,500 to $2,300, according to the Illinois Student Assistance Commission. The cuts were part of $105 million slashed from the state’s higher education budget because of the slowing economy and declining revenues.

Meanwhile, public four-year universities raised tuition by an average of 10.7 percent; several, including Southern Illinois-Carbondale and Eastern Illinois, raised their price tag by 16 to 18 percent. Tuition at private universities went up an average of 4.7 percent.

“When you look at the fact that tuition and fees increased so much, and their grants are less, that means the affordability gap got that much bigger,” says commission spokesperson Lori Reimers.

“We expect to see less of an increase in enrollment next year because MAP grants are less,” says Christopher Rone, associate director of financial aid at DePaul University, where dozens of students in their fifth year of college saw their grants eliminated.

“That was where the impact really was,” says Rone. “They’re 22, 23 years old, so close to their degree they can taste it, and they just lost [thousands] in free money.” The Illinois Board of Higher Education is putting together a special committee on college affordability that will craft budget recommendations for next fiscal year, says Reimers. The goal, she says, is to “regain the ground we lost in affordability.”

The College Board stresses that financial sacrifices made in pursuit of a college degree constitute a wise investment. Citing figures from the U.S. Census Bureau, it notes that people with a bachelor’s degree earn over 80 percent more on average than those with only a high school diploma. “Over a lifetime, the gap in earning potential between a high school diploma and a B.A. (or higher) is more than $1,000,000,” it notes.

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