Slumping economy, market make it harder for baby boomers to foot kids' college bills

Posted: Thursday, August 15, 2002

NEW YORK (AP) -- Working for a company that helps students get ready for college, Harriet Brand figured she would be prepared for the day when her two daughters headed to campus, even when it came to paying hefty tuition bills.

Brand, who works for The Princeton Review, started saving for college when her children were babies, and she thought she'd have no trouble paying for their education. And, until last fall, when older daughter Jessica entered her junior year at State University of New York at Buffalo and younger daughter Debby became a freshman at Pomona College in southern California, Brand was right on track.

But the prolonged bear market and the economic impact of the Sept. 11 terror attacks wreaked havoc on the Brand family's finances. The investment portfolio Brand shared with her husband shrank, as did rental income from apartments they own.

''All our plans fell apart, our income sources dwindled and the money in the stock market that I had put away to pay for college disappeared,'' said Brand, of New York.

Many baby boomers, those 76 million Americans born between 1946 and 1964, who thought they had saved enough for their kids' college tuition bills, are scrambling to cover shortfalls in funds tagged for tuition, room and board.

''I will have to find another $6,000 to $8,000 somewhere,'' said Greg Stringer, whose son will be a senior this fall at Brown University.

Stringer, a senior vice president for National City Bank in Cleveland, said he will take money from savings to cover the amount he's now short. He feels lucky that son Andrew was mostly through college before the downturn in the economy and on Wall Street.

Others haven't been as fortunate, as demonstrated by increased demand for financial aid. Applications for federal aid for the upcoming school year totaled 8 million, up nearly 10 percent from last year's 7.3 million, according to the U.S. Department of Education. The number of applications typically increases by 2 percent a year.

Brand did what many baby boomers have been forced to do with mounting tuition bills and shrinking financial resources. She contacted her younger daughter's school, Pomona College, where the price tag for one year is about $36,000, and asked for guidance.

''I got my bill for the second semester (last year), and I said, 'Oh, my God, what am I going to do?'' Brand said. ''It was really frightening. I didn't anticipate that I would ever be in that situation.''

Because her annual household income exceeds $100,000, Brand didn't think she'd qualify for a federal loan. But because her financial situation had changed, she filed for financial aid and was granted a loan by Pomona itself.

Relieved, Brand advises other parents, ''If you work with the financial aid office, they can really help you.''

Brand's actions speak to the importance many boomers place on paying for their children's higher education.

''College is a gateway toward opportunity for the next generation. I wanted to make sure I have everything lined up properly when for when that bill comes due,'' Stringer said.

Such high standards also explain how disheartened some boomer parents feel as they face unexpected deficits in their college savings plans.

''It's stressful in the sense that the market hasn't picked up yet,'' said Kate Kelly, a Larchmont, N.Y., mother with two daughters in college and a third who will be in a few years.

So far, Kelly said she has been able to use other resources to pay for her older daughters' education.

''We are fine. We are just not as fine as we were,'' Kelly said.

Meanwhile, she's changed how her youngest daughter's college fund is allocated, switching to more conservative investments.

Financial planners and books about saving for college have long advised parents to scale back on riskier investments, such as stocks, and focus more on safer ones, such as bonds, as their kids and get older and college draws closer. But with the bull market of the late '90s, many parents, not to mention investors in general, remained heavily invested in stocks.

Kelly doesn't want to worry anymore about tuition as the market goes through its ups and downs.

''We didn't want to be riding the market (this time),'' she said.

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