When a Student’s First-Choice College Is Out of Financial Reach

This spring Natasha van Doren, the mother of a prospective Southern New Hampshire University student, wrote an e-mail to Paul LeBlanc, its president. Her daughter, Mariah Mann, had fallen in love with the campus, she wrote, but there was a problem: Money was tight, and if Ms. van Doren sent in the needed $500 deposit, she would have only enough left over to pay half of her monthly rent. Ms. van Doren and Mr. LeBlanc traded several e-mails.

The correspondence was one of a dozen or so personal pleas Mr. LeBlanc estimates he hears every year. But this time, Mr. LeBlanc posted an excerpt from one of Ms. van Doren’s messages and his final response to her on his blog. (Mr. LeBlanc changed the mother’s and daughter’s names in his post, but Ms. van Doren agreed to have their names used here.)

In his conversation with the mother, Mr. LeBlanc raised a point colleges all over the country wrestle with: Sometimes there is no good way for families to afford sending their children to the college of their choice.

Mr. LeBlanc wasn’t thinking his post would find a wide audience, he said in an interview—he uses the blog as a way to think things through. Part of the decision to post it, he said, was his frustration over the possibility that need-based state grants in New Hampshire would be eliminated. “People sort of don’t understand,” he said. “Sometimes they forget how hard it is for poor families.”

Sometimes the university does step in to help students in difficult circumstances, Mr. LeBlanc said. Just recently, he and the trustees pitched in to help another student. But they can’t in every case. After receiving Ms. van Doren’s first e-mail, Mr. LeBlanc looked at the daughter’s financial-aid package and discovered she was on track to borrow $7,000 for her first year—and somehow had to come up with an additional $10,000 on top of that. He wrote Ms. van Doren back to explain the situation, and concluded:

I know Mariah really wants to attend SNHU and we are offering her a lot of grant money to help (around $12k), but might it make sense for her to attend a much more affordable two-year college for her first two years and then transfer in? She would still have two years with us and finish with an SNHU degree, but would be in much better shape financially.

I urge you to reconsider—not because we wouldn’t love to have Mariah here, but because her enthusiasm for this place might be clouding her thinking about the financial implications. Also, I have worries about your ability to find the needed $10k of additional funding even if we waive the deposit.

The mother’s response, which Mr. LeBlanc included on his blog, read: “Does this mean my appeal did nothing? I always hear schools say that there is always a way to pay for school. How the school expects a family that pays 75% of their income on rent to pay 10,000 is crazy. I feel as though I would have better served my daughters if we had stayed living in a shelter.”

In his answer, also included in the blog post, Mr. LeBlanc expressed sympathy and told the mother: “If you have fought your way out of homelessness, she must surely have inherited some great amount of your tenacity and fight.” Mr. LeBlanc also explained that he himself was unable to attend his first-choice college for financial reasons.

When Ms. van Doren heard back from Mr. LeBlanc, she said, “I thought it was very harsh. I was very surprised.”

Ms. van Doren had attended community college, but didn’t think it was the right option for her daughter. “I’m sure he’s just trying to be matter-of-fact,” she said. “He has thousands of students he has to worry about—I have one student to worry about, and that’s my daughter.”

The response from Mr. LeBlanc made her cry, Ms. van Doren said, but she still planned to pay the deposit at Southern New Hampshire until she called and was told there was no more housing available. Mariah, who recently changed her name to Rory, wanted to have the whole on-campus experience.

So instead, Rory will attend Marlboro College, in Vermont. Ms. van Doren paid the college’s $400 deposit, and she thinks Rory will have to borrow about $10,000 a year to go there.

Asked if she worried about her daughter’s facing that kind of debt, Ms. van Doren said: “Yes, but I worry more about her working at a grocery store or a McDonald’s for the rest of her life.”

Rory’s high-school counselor expressed concern at her potential debt burden, Ms. van Doren said. But until now, the message she heard everywhere was that college was a good investment, one worth borrowing for. “It’s hard to be able to admit you can’t help your kid to do some basic thing that’s like some rite of passage,” she said.

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