In Buffalo, Talk of College Costs Stirs Hope and Doubt

Jason Greene for The Chronicle

College almost didn't happen for her, says Serina Robinson. But after realizing that she "had the ability to be whoever I wanted to be," she says, she started studying. State and federal grants, plus help from Say Yes Buffalo, will cover her cost of attendance at the State University of New York at Fredonia this fall.
August 23, 2013

A puzzle, a mess, a mystery, a racket. On the eve of President Obama's arrival, people here in Buffalo used many words to describe the cost of obtaining a college degree.

In lunch lines and on elevators, they predicted what the man from Washington would say. They debated whether he, or anyone, could offer practical solutions. They described the temptation of buying scalped tickets, for $100 or more, to his speech.

Beneath the marble obelisk in Niagara Square, where Buffalonians lined up for free chicken wings at noon and gathered for a yoga class at sundown, many had strong opinions about higher education. Some described paying for college as an unfair burden, a rip-off. Others said a diploma was worth any sacrifice, even shoveling out of debt for decades.

When asked if college was affordable, some gave conflicting answers in the same breath.

Nancy Pray considered the question with a close friend while sitting on a deck beside a backyard pool. The two mothers, each about to send a son off to college for the first time, swam for a while and drank iced tea. They wondered if they were crazy to have chosen more-expensive colleges over cheaper ones nearby.

This spring, Ms. Pray and her husband, both high-school teachers, agreed to let their son Corey attend Boston University. Fordham University had offered him much more grant aid, but he had fallen in love with BU's campus. After a second visit to Boston, he wrote his parents a two-page letter describing his plan to help pay for his education, maybe with an ROTC scholarship.

"It's outrageous, the dollar amount for the average family," Ms. Pray said. "But when you see your kid get that passionate about something, you want to make it happen."

The Prays have refinanced their house. They expect to postpone their retirement. They've told Corey that they will cover his first two semesters, but after that he might have to come back home and attend the University at Buffalo, which would save the family tens of thousands of dollars.

Across town at the Founding Fathers Pub, a group of young men discussed the scarcity of various jobs in the region. Above the bar were framed photographs of Presidents Kennedy and Reagan, and a fanciful drawing of Washington crossing the Delaware on a cheeseburger. Mike Schmidt, a landscape architect, stared up at the pictures as he sipped a Labatt Blue. "The problem is, at some point, people got this idea that everybody should go to college," he said. "Not everyone can be book smart."

Over at Kenmore West High School, home of the Blue Devils, David Coates was meeting with students to finalize their class schedules. Since the recession began, the college counselor has heard plenty of doubts. Families that would have considered far-flung private institutions five years ago now shake their heads. More students choose to attend local universities and live at home. More have enrolled at community colleges, with plans to transfer to a four-year college, an option that once held more of a stigma, he said.

Mr. Coates has seen parents' expectations for college change, too. "More are viewing it as vocational training rather than subscribing to that old adage about becoming a problem solver and creative thinker," he said. "I try to explain that when their son or daughter is 16 years old, they're still learning about the world and about themselves, that their interests may change over time." Some listen, some don't.

Shuffling through a folder of course-request forms on her desk, Jane S. Mathias recalled similar conversations. "Relatively speaking, parents are less concerned with the liberal-arts education now," said Ms. Mathias, director of guidance at Nardin Academy. "They want to know, What job is there?"

That question, Ms. Mathias thinks, reveals the insecurity among middle-class parents about what the future holds. "The middle's getting squeezed," she said. Yet some of her students tell her they'd do anything to attend their first-choice college. This fall, for the first time, she plans to offer a financial-aid session for students as well as for parents. She wants the prospective college-goers to think harder about what it would be like to have $40,000 in debt.

A 10-minute drive away, many parents were just starting to think about college. Hundreds of families had come to McCarthy Park for "Community Fun Day." A stuffed dalmation named Patches rode in a remote-controlled fire truck, and children with painted faces lined up to jump around inside the inflatable Bounce House.

Carrying plates of hot dogs and hamburgers, several mothers stopped to talk with Ann Marie Wiesinger, scholarship coordinator for the Buffalo chapter of Say Yes to Education. The group provides scholarships to meet the cost of tuition at a state university to any student who graduates from a public or charter school in Buffalo.

When Sharifa Richardson heard this, she gasped. After graduating from high school, she said, she hadn't bothered to apply to college because she thought she couldn't afford the application fees. Now a single mother, she has four children, the oldest of whom is 11.

Ms. Richardson, an in-home nurse, has started saving money for her children's college educations: Her goal is $20,000. "It's discouraging. It seems so far off," she said. "When I get that tax reimbursement, it's hard not to spend it on the phone bill or shoes."

Down at City Hall on Wednesday evening, Molly Barry, an elementary-school teacher, took the elevator to the eighth floor, for a Board of Education meeting. Wearing a black dress, she had come to deliver a three-minute speech that she had typed out that morning.

Afterward, the mother of four described her concerns about paying for college. Her husband died of cancer this summer. She had just decided to talk to a financial planner about college savings. "I will drive a clunker for the rest of my life, and I will go without vacations," she said. "But I'm scared to death that won't be enough."

Like many people in Buffalo, Ms. Barry doubted that the president could do much to rein in college costs. "The government can't fix anything because college is a business," she said. "They all try to outdo themselves with dorms and gyms. What happened to those dirty, nasty dorms with cockroaches?" She smiled as she recalled the drab rug in her own freshman room years ago.

That night at Schwabl's Restaurant, in West Seneca, N.Y., Justin Moulin sliced thin strips of roast beef and placed them on kummelweck rolls. Although his daughter, Kendra, is only 2 years old, he said he'd already thought a lot about whether he and his wife could send her to college one day. "I heard something about college costing $40,000 on the radio this morning," he said, "and I was like, What is that going to be in 15 years?"

Mr. Moulin, who manages Schwabl's, works 40 to 50 hours a week. He never earned a college degree. Although he likes his job, he wants his daughter to have other options, he said. "I don't want her to work in a restaurant all her life."

Yet Mr. Moulin couldn't help but think of a cousin who, after getting a bachelor's degree, moved back in with his parents because he couldn't find a job in his field. Recently, the two spoke on the phone. "He said, 'Remember when we were younger, and you wanted to be a chef, and I wanted to be a hockey player?'"

On Brinkman Street the next day, Serina Robinson was packing her bags for the State University of New York at Fredonia, where she will be a freshman this fall. As her dog, Sirius, barked at passers-by, she described college as something that almost did not happen.

Ms. Robinson was raised by her mother, Lori, who worked in a food plant and drove a bus before injuring her arm. For years they had little money, and sometimes Ms. Robinson's classmates laughed at her dated clothing.

During her first two years in high school, Ms. Robinson blew off classes. "I hung out with a careless crowd," she said, "a crowd that didn't really care about their future." One day her mother sat her down and asked her what she wanted to do with her life. "I realized I had the ability to be whoever I wanted to be," she said. She started studying.

Federal and state grants, plus a $2,000 annual grant from Say Yes Buffalo, will cover her cost of attendance at Fredonia, she said. Although she has taken out a Stafford Loan, she still worries about paying for all her expenses. Recently, she learned that her prepaid wireless phone doesn't get good reception on the campus. "My phone is my life," she said, "but I don't think I can afford Verizon."

As President Obama was speaking at the University at Buffalo's North Campus on Thursday, Wendy Kushner was on the South Campus, helping her son, Mike, a freshman, move into Goodyear Hall. After she and her daughter, Amy, hugged him goodbye, they walked back to their Ford Focus in the parking lot. There, they characterized college as too expensive.

Ms. Kushner, a widow, said she had saved as much as she could for college, hoarding savings bonds and recycling soda cans. "I feel bad," she said, "that he's going to have to take out loans."

"For a piece of paper," her daughter said.

Amy had enrolled at Buffalo after high school. She worked at restaurants on the campus, preparing food and making change. "For all the talk about how the foundation of our country is education, as a student you feel like you're being taken advantage of," she said. "Tuition, books, all these fees. A lot of things just feel like a scam."

Later she transferred to Erie Community College and then to Trocaire College, moving back home to save money. Once an art major, she now plans to become a nurse.

Still, the mother and daughter said they were happy to see someone they love "start living his dreams." The first day of college, they agreed, was something to celebrate. To that end, they had decided to go shopping, for nursing shoes.

Sources of information in the graphics with this article: Cost and financial-aid data are from the U.S. Department of Education's National Center for Education Statistics. Cost-of-attendance and net-price figures are for the 2012-13 academic year; financial-aid data are for the 2011-12 academic year. Debt and default-rate data are from the White House's College Scorecard.