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Tess Vigeland: You've heard it most of your life: A college education is an expensive but undeniably worthwhile down payment on the rest of your life. Well, as that down payment gets more and more expensive, some families are wondering if going into deep debt for an education is really worth it. At a suburban high school in Maryland, money is a key factor in students' decisions about which college to attend. Emily Hanford of American RadioWorks reports.
KATHY Moore: These came today, and my mail is sitting over there.
EMILY HANFORD: Kathy Moore is sifting through scholarship brochures. She's the college counselor at Blake High School in Montgomery County, Maryland, just outside of Washington. Her walls are covered with banners and fliers from colleges all over the country. One promotional poster says: "Everyone can afford Duke." But this year even wealthy families aren't so sure. And students from those families are coming to her and saying...
Moore: . . . "My parents say I gotta start filling out scholarships."
STUDENT: OK, so I'll do the application right now.
Moore: If you don't get anything into FAFSA right now, they don't even know you exist.
Moore has a line of students waiting to ask questions. She says there wasn't as much focus on money in the past.
MOORE: There were more kids who rolled through here and said, "I'm not going to Maryland. I'm getting out of Dodge. I'm going to be adventuresome. My parents said I could."
And often it was parents pushing the prestigious schools. But...
Moore: That kind of push isn't happening anymore. If the kid wants to go to Maryland, by all means go.
And even state schools can be a stretch. The average cost is close to $15,000 a year, more in Maryland. Some parents have lost jobs or homes, but mostly everyone's just edgy and anxious. Spending a lot on college feels like more of a risk now.
Natasha GORDON: A lot of my friends, they're getting into schools that they really wanted to go to but then like when they think about the money they're like, "This is unrealistic. I'm probably not going here."
For Natasha Gordon it was all about money from the start. Mrs. Moore told her about a full-tuition scholarship at Lafayette, a private college in Pennsylvania. She applied. She got it.
GORDON: And I was like, "Well, the money's here with Lafayette," and I did like the school, so I don't think I'm losing anything if I choose to go there.
She never really let herself dream about anywhere else. She knows her family can't afford big tuition.
GORDON: It's not like we're struggling but we don't have it like that. So it's like we're right in the middle, so you kinda gotta watch and make sure that you don't fall under.
Natasha's friend Cateatra Mallard says cost was not the main thing on her mind when visiting colleges last summer. Instead she was marveling at how fancy everything was -- new buildings, beautiful dorms, even good food.
Cateatra MALLARD: The food was amazing.
She had her sights on a college in South Carolina. But at $30,000 a year her mother says...
CONNIE Pearsall: That's off the table. Uh-um, $30,000 is scary.
Connie Pearsall once thought she'd have the money to send her daughter wherever she wanted. Five years ago she bought a condo when everyone was flipping real estate. That's what she planned to do. But now the condo's not worth what she paid for it. And while she has a good job, and she's not really worried about being laid off, the economy has her spooked. And her credit-card debt freaks her out.
Pearsall: I just want to get rid of it all. And I don't spend.
She says her daughter is now looking at a less expensive school. They're waiting to find out what financial aid they'll get. And Pearsall says if it includes loans, Cateatra's going to have to pay them back herself after graduation.
RECRUITER: So typically for the admissions process you have to go to campus, but if you can fill out that application and hand it in to Ms. Moore...
Back at Blake High School a recruiter from Montgomery College has set up a table in front of the counseling office. It's the local community college. You can take a full load of classes for a year for less than $4,000. Kathy Moore is encouraging her students to just fill out an application.
Moore: Have this in your back pocket. You could be accepted to all your four-year schools, and if it turns out that your family can't follow through and it's too expensive, you always have MC to fall back on.
Most students tell her there's no way they're going to community college. Moore just smiles.
Moore: All right buddy, uh-huh, yeah.
I'm Emily Hanford, for Marketplace.
VIGELAND: Tomorrow we'll go to the community college, where classrooms are packed with students seeking a cheaper path to a college degree.