Earlier this month, President Obama flew to Miami to take the stage in front of a gymnasium full of high school seniors. He came to Coral Reef High School to address a subject near and dear to his audience: better access to higher education.
A college education has never been more valuable. The pay differential between young Americans with bachelor's degrees and those with only high school degrees is wider than it's ever been. But paying for that education has never been more difficult. Tuition and fees are rising faster than inflation, forcing many students to rack up heavy debt.
Both realities are never far from the mind of David Scherker, a Coral Reef senior who attended the president's speech. He's wants to study film, and he's waiting to hear back from several schools, including Florida State University and the University of Southern California. But he's afraid he might not receive much financial aid. Attending USC, he says, could cost $30,000 to $40,000 per year.
As Morning Edition begins a month-long look at how families are paying for college, David Greene talks to Scherker and his mother, Bea Llano-Scherker, about the tough choices they're making – and the ones that still lie ahead.
On how David Scherker and his peers are handling the college application process
Scherker: Some people already know where they're going [to college] and I'm very jealous of them. But some of them are very stressed out [about] applying to scholarships and being able to afford the schools they want to go to.
On the challenge of securing financial aid
Llano-Scherker: We kind of fall in the middle. We make too much money to qualify for needs-based financial aid. We're hoping David is offered academic help, but we're prepared for the worst and hoping for the best.
On trying not to stress over finances
Llano-Scherker: [David] is kind of a worrier. He's a very responsible kid — we're lucky that way. We said, "Just do what you need to do in school and we'll worry about the financial part." I want him to be able to make the decision of where he really wants to go.
I'm a first generation immigrant and I was raised with the mentality that education is the way to a better life. And if that's what he feels is going to lead toward his better life, I don't want to stand in the way and say, 'You know what, choose this school over this school because it's going to be a $20,000 difference a year.'
On parents adjusting their lifestyles to pay for college
Llano-Scherker: My husband Steven and I were frugal and we've made the sacrifices to make sure our kids have the options. ... We're going to try not to [take out loans]. What Steven and I did is, we sat down and basically figured out how we're going to live off one salary while [our kids are] in school.
[A friend] had a child who went to an out-of-state, private university and she was a single mom. So she kept taking loans on her very nice home that she had. And by her child's senior year, she ended up putting the house up for sale and moved to a much smaller home. Then again, she never complained about it — it's just what she did to give her daughter the education she wanted.
RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
Recently, the president and the first lady visited a high school in Miami.
(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)
MONTAGNE: The first couple was there to talk to students about attending college and how to pay for it.
(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)
MONTAGNE: Kitchen table talks like this will be especially intense in the weeks ahead, as millions of high school seniors - about two-thirds of the graduating class - find out where they've been accepted to college, and how much it will cost. So during these weeks, we're going to bring you stories about how the Class of 2014 is planning to pay for college.
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
David Scherker was one of the students in the audience for that speech by President Obama at Coral Reef High School in Miami, and we caught up with him at his home a few days after that. College admissions officers talk a lot today about applicants' resumes, and David has a really good one: great grades, tons of community service. He's also won prizes for writing and for films that he's made.
He wants to work someday in the film industry, and he's competing against equally accomplished high school seniors not just for a spot in college, but also for scholarships. David's the third child his parents will have put through college.
(SOUNDBITE OF DOOR OPENING, CLOSING)
It's pretty early in the morning at David's house before everyone heads off to school. His older brother, Ryan, is still in college. His parents are both teachers.
David's father, Steven, is finishing up the dishes before leaving for his second job, one he took to help pay for his kids' college tuitions.
BEATRIZ LLANO-SCHERKER: David, make sure everything's by the door.
GREENE: David's mom, Beatriz Llano-Scherker, sits down with David to speak with us.
David, can you tell me where you are right now in the college application process?
DAVID SCHERKER: I have been accepted to a couple schools, and I'm still awaiting more acceptance letters, and to hear back from film schools. But fortunately, I didn't apply to a lot of schools, because I know kids who applied to like, 20 schools.
GREENE: So is everybody really - stressful right now, you and your friends?
SCHERKER: Well, some people already know where they're going, and I'm very jealous of them. But some of them are very stressed out, applying for scholarships and being able to afford the schools that they want to go to.
GREENE: Well, how much do the colleges that you've applied to cost?
SCHERKER: Well, it varies. Florida State University is a state school, but University of Southern California can potentially cost 30,000, $40,000 a year.
GREENE: And that is just for tuition. With room and board and fees, USC - like so many top private colleges - costs somewhere close to $60,000 a year. And as college tuitions have soared, the means to assist families financially haven't kept pace. Many people believe the federal formula that assesses financial need is out of date, and federal grants cover just a fraction of what they once did.
David's family is far from wealthy. But his mom, Beatriz - she goes by Bea - doesn't expect him to get a lot of financial aid.
LLANO-SCHERKER: We kind of fall in the middle. We make too much money to qualify for needs-based financial aid. We're hoping that David is offered academic help. But we're prepared for the worst, and hoping for the best. (Laughter)
GREENE: Now, the truth is many high school seniors aren't even thinking about college. They're going straight into jobs, or they have other plans. But for the millions of families - including the Scherkers - who are thinking about college, they're going to have decide over the next six weeks how to balance their children's dreams with the realities of their finances.
Beatriz says she and her husband are trying not to burden David too much.
LLANO-SCHERKER: He's kind of a worrier, you know. He's a very responsible kid. We're lucky that way. And we said, OK, just do what you need to do in school, and we'll worry about the financial part.
GREENE: I could see a situation where he's gotten into, you know, a top film school that's a private school that cost a ton of money, and maybe a, you know, a state school in Florida with a great film school. I mean, at that point, do you start talking about, well, what's worth what here?
LLANO-SCHERKER: Well, I think we are going to have that conversation, but I want him to be able to make the decision of where he really wants to go. I'm a first-generation immigrant, and I was raised with the mentality that education is the way to a better life. And if that's what he feels is going to lead toward his better life, I don't want to stand in the way and say, you know what? Choose this school over this school, because it's going to be a $20,000 difference a year.
My husband, Steven and I, we're frugal, and we've made the sacrifices to make sure that our kids have the options. Our oldest boy Ryan is at a private university, at University of Miami.
GREENE: And he's living - Ryan is living at home. Was that a sacrifice that he made to try and save money and ease the burden?
LLANO-SCHERKER: Yes. We crunched the numbers and we said, well, if you're going to attend the University of Miami, you're going to live at home, and he was fine with that. And he brown-bags his lunch, just like we do every day. We don't frequent the coffee shop. We make our coffee at home.
GREENE: Does the possibility exist that if David attends an expensive school and his brother Ryan is in college right now, that you might have to take out some loans to make this happen?
LLANO-SCHERKER: Well, we're going to try not to do that. What Steven and I did is we sat down and basically figured out how we're going to live off of one salary while they're in school. And that's what we've been doing for the last two years.
GREENE: Live off one salary, and the other salary goes to pay for education.
GREENE: So, two teachers devoting almost half their income to education. The Scherkers have also been preparing and saving for college for decades, and they're hoping that means they don't have to take out any loans. Of course, a lot of their friends are taking out loans, just like so many American families do - the children or the parents or both.
The Scherkers are leery. Beatriz says college loans contributed to one friend losing her house.
LLANO-SCHERKER: She had a child who went to an out-of-state, private university, and she was a single mom. So she kept taking loans on her very nice home that she had, and by her child's senior year, she ended up putting the house up for sale and moved to a much smaller home. Then, again, you know, she never complained about it. It's just what she had to do to give her daughter the education she wanted.
GREENE: I had a question for Beatriz. After she and her husband provide their three children with the education they want, I wondered how much they will have spent. She says it's something she doesn't like to think about all that much, but she does do the math. If David attends a private college like his older siblings, the Scherkers, two school teachers, will probably have paid between 250 and $300,000.
LLANO-SCHERKER: And I hope not to be working until I'm 89, so, you know, at the end of everything, hopefully they'll remember who put them through school, and keep that in mind when they're figuring out what home they're going place us in.
GREENE: David, are you going to remember that?
GREENE: That's high school senior, David Scherker, with his mom, Beatriz Llano-Scherker, talking about their plans and their fears when it comes to paying for college. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.