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Balancing College Dreams With Financial Realities

Earlier this month, President Obama flew to Miami to take the stage in front of a gymnasium full of high school seniors. He came to Coral Reef High School to address a subject near and dear to his audience: better access to higher education.

A college education has never been more valuable. The pay differential between young Americans with bachelor's degrees and those with only high school degrees is wider than it's ever been. But paying for that education has never been more difficult. Tuition and fees are rising faster than inflation, forcing many students to rack up heavy debt.

Both realities are never far from the mind of David Scherker, a Coral Reef senior who attended the president's speech. He's wants to study film, and he's waiting to hear back from several schools, including Florida State University and the University of Southern California. But he's afraid he might not receive much financial aid. Attending USC, he says, could cost $30,000 to $40,000 per year.

As Morning Edition begins a month-long look at how families are paying for college, David Greene talks to Scherker and his mother, Bea Llano-Scherker, about the tough choices they're making – and the ones that still lie ahead.

Interview Highlights

On how David Scherker and his peers are handling the college application process

Scherker: Some people already know where they're going [to college] and I'm very jealous of them. But some of them are very stressed out [about] applying to scholarships and being able to afford the schools they want to go to.

On the challenge of securing financial aid

Llano-Scherker: We kind of fall in the middle. We make too much money to qualify for needs-based financial aid. We're hoping David is offered academic help, but we're prepared for the worst and hoping for the best.

On trying not to stress over finances

Llano-Scherker: [David] is kind of a worrier. He's a very responsible kid — we're lucky that way. We said, "Just do what you need to do in school and we'll worry about the financial part." I want him to be able to make the decision of where he really wants to go.

I'm a first generation immigrant and I was raised with the mentality that education is the way to a better life. And if that's what he feels is going to lead toward his better life, I don't want to stand in the way and say, 'You know what, choose this school over this school because it's going to be a $20,000 difference a year.'

On parents adjusting their lifestyles to pay for college

Llano-Scherker: My husband Steven and I were frugal and we've made the sacrifices to make sure our kids have the options. ... We're going to try not to [take out loans]. What Steven and I did is, we sat down and basically figured out how we're going to live off one salary while [our kids are] in school.

[A friend] had a child who went to an out-of-state, private university and she was a single mom. So she kept taking loans on her very nice home that she had. And by her child's senior year, she ended up putting the house up for sale and moved to a much smaller home. Then again, she never complained about it — it's just what she did to give her daughter the education she wanted.

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