Jenna Patterson of Newburgh, New York, is about to enter her freshman year of college.
"I knew I had to go to college, to get a job, nowadays especially. I know how hard it was. My dad didn't go to college, but he got a good job. But I know it was hard for him to move up in the system," she said.
Like most kids, Jenna's worked hard to get in to college. She's an “A” student, a cheerleader co-captain, a member of several student committees, and a volunteer in her community. Jenna wants to become a math teacher. She applied to six colleges — and got accepted to all of them.
Great news. But how will her family pay for it?
Jenna's dad Joey works as a senior manager at a New York City hospital. He didn't go to college because he couldn't afford it. He thinks life was harder without a degree. Jenna's mom Jill, a college graduate, works as an administrative assistant for an environmental agency.
Even with a combined income of $135,000, they still don't make enough to send their daughter to college. "We started taking a look at things and realized we hadn't saved enough," Joey said.
Nor have most Americans.
It's no wonder when you consider how much the cost of college has risen over the last 25 years. The price of a public four-year college education increased by more than 500 percent from 1981 to 2003. All consumer prices rose by only 140% percent in the same period.
"I saw what the expenses that were going to come up and saw that my check and Jill's check just weren't going to go far enough," Joey said. So, he took on a weekend landscaping job to help pay for Jenna's upcoming college bills.
It's come to the point where a family earnings a median income of more than $44,000 a year must spend a third of its annual income to put just one child through college — and that's before taxes.
In the last 10 years alone, tuition and fees have gone up 37% at four-year private schools; up 54% at public schools.
Jenna ended up choosing the University at Albany, State University of New York, also known as SUNY-Albany. Because Jenna lives in New York, SUNY-Albany would charge her an in-state tuition of $17,000. She had been considering the University of Massachusettes-Amherst — which would have cost $30,000 a year in out-of-state tuition. "In my mind, the University of Massachusetts-Amherst was never going happen," Jenna's father Joey said.
As we begin another school year, Jenna and her family's dilemma is being repeated in homes across the country: How to pay for college?