This afternoon, José Otero carries his future in a stack of worn envelopes. Each one contains a financial-aid offer, and each offer is different. He has two weeks to weigh the numbers, two weeks to choose a college.
At 5 o'clock on a Thursday in mid-April, José, a high-school senior, sits down at a conference-room table with his parents, Israel and Elba Otero. They have come to the offices of Collegiate Directions Inc., a local nonprofit group that helps lower-income families navigate the college-application process. For the past year, José has spent many hours here, for test preparation, college counseling, and encouragement.
Today's meeting is about money. On the table are copies of a chart prepared by the organization's staff. In neat columns, the chart shows the annual cost of attendance at each of the eight colleges where José has been accepted. It breaks down each financial-aid package, listing loans separately from scholarships and grants. The last column shows the "funding gap"—the family's annual out-of-pocket cost.
The chart is meant to simplify, in apples-to-apples terms, the discussion of what college will cost the Oteros, who already have a daughter in college. But several questions remain. For one thing, José has yet to receive financial-aid offers from Guilford College and the University of Richmond.
Then there's Haverford College, his first choice. At $53,000, the college has the highest annual sticker price of any institutions on the list. Haverford has offered him more money, in the form of scholarships and grants, than all but one other college has. Still, the gap is $14,000. And, unlike the others, Haverford includes no mention of federal aid in its award letter.
That baffles Theresa O. Atta, the organization's executive director, who has helped many students decode financial-aid forms. "There's something missing here," she says, tapping a finger on the chart. "We need to follow up with somebody directly and find out what happened."
The wide variance among the offers causes José's father to shake his head. "Are they all looking at the same information?" Mr. Otero asks.
For 15 minutes, Ms. Atta points out several things she wants the family to consider. "It looks like Villanova University has the smallest gap," she says, "but they've included in the loans a Parent PLUS Loan." The total in that column: $16,490.
Then she explains that the offer from the College of the Holy Cross is relatively heavy with loans. There's a $3,500 Stafford Loan, a $2,000 unsubsidized loan, and a Perkins Loan, along with work-study money.
For a while, José's father takes notes and says little. Finally he looks up. "The word 'loans' scares me to death," he says.
Ms. Atta nods, then looks at José. "You need to continue to apply for outside scholarships," she says. "How many have you applied for?"
José smiles ruefully and bows his head.
"I didn't think so," Ms. Atta says. "This is where you start. They don't just fall out of the sky."
At the other end of the table, Nina W. Marks, the organization's president, encourages José to think carefully about the values—and the vibe—of each campus. She describes the educational philosophy of the Quakers, who founded Haverford. She suggests that Villanova might have more "rah rah" school spirit than several of the other colleges.
Ms. Marks asks the Oteros if they have a strong feeling about any of the campuses. Mr. Otero looks at his son, then at Ms. Marks. "He has a preference and we are just shadowing him," he says. "We have our own preference, but we don't want to tell him. Whatever he decides."
Ms. Marks leans over and places her hands over José's ears. She then asks Mr. Otero to tell her the name of their preferred college, which he whispers.
After 40 minutes, the meeting ends. José promises to return the next day to discuss the Haverford offer with Ms. Atta. Before the Oteros leave, she encourages them. "I don't blame you for having these looks on your faces," she says. "It's all a bit overwhelming."
'Kind of Mind-blowing'
Money wasn't the only factor in José's final decision. Had it been, he might have chosen Oberlin College, in Ohio, which offered him the biggest scholarship and relatively little in loans. According to the chart, the college would require the smallest out-of-pocket payment.
But geography mattered, too. José wanted to be close to his sister, Isel, a sophomore at Bryn Mawr College, just outside Philadelphia. When she heard that he was considering Haverford and Villanova, she shrieked with delight into the telephone. José wanted his parents to be able to visit both him and Isel at once.
There were other considerations. José spent his first 12 years in Puerto Rico, where he remembers watching people strike up conversations with strangers while stopped at traffic lights. Sometimes such conversations led to friendships. He wanted a campus where people were close-knit, open to diversity, and not too cliquish or too rowdy.
Nonetheless, cost shaped José's thinking. Though not poor, his parents have scraped to pay for his sister's college, he says. His father works in the Commissioned Corps of the U.S. Public Health Service, and his mother is an office assistant at Montgomery College, in Rockville, Md. "We don't have the capital to give them, because all of our life has been working for what we are now," Mr. Otero said at the meeting in April.
Still, José suspected that his parents would take on as much debt as they could, so that he could go wherever he wanted. He knew they did not want to influence his decision.
Recently José has tried to do what he can to help his parents save money. He used to go to Chipotle for lunch, but he started packing salad in a plastic bag and helping himself to the free dressing at school. He has planned for a summer job.
As April wore on, José thought often of Haverford, where he had once eaten ribs at a picnic held by the admissions office. He believed he would get the most personal attention there. He liked the peaceful feel of the campus, and that the college has no fraternities.
Nevertheless, Villanova, his second choice, seemed like the more practical option, because it would cost his family less each year. "I want to do what's best for my parents' pocket," he said in late April. Days before the May 1 deposit deadline, he visited Villanova with his father, spending five hours there.
As they drove home, José was excited. He liked how clean the campus was and how friendly the students were. He imagined himself studying biology there, or history, or maybe both.
Upon returning home, however, José found a letter waiting for him. The letter, from Villanova, explained that the university had adjusted his aid package, reducing his grants by $4,000 a year. José said he had been told of the change when he visited the financial-aid office but had not understood what he heard. "It was kind of mind-blowing," he said.
George Walter, associate dean of enrollment management for admissions and financial assistance at Villanova, said he could not discuss Mr. Otero's case. But he said the university would adjust a student's aid package only if it received additional or updated information (such as tax forms) about the family's financial picture. "Sometimes something's detected during the verification process that wasn't apparent, or was different when first submitted," he said. "We try to be as clear as possible."
As a result of the adjustment, attending Villanova would cost José and his family about the same as Haverford would: $14,000 a year. A follow-up telephone call to Haverford resolved the question about federal aid. For one thing, José learned that Haverford does not require students who receive financial aid to take out loans of any kind.
In the end, José's story was a glimpse into the mystery of college choice, so often determined by dollar amounts, but also by factors impossible to measure. Drained, but happy, he chose Haverford. He could finally stop lugging around all those envelopes.