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Calculating the price of an academic dream

First Published      Last Updated Jun 27 2014 09:44 am

Alexis Watson and Katerina Simons each faced a tough decision as they finished high school: Borrow heavily to attend an expensive dream school, or choose a more affordable public university.

Simons, who made her decision two years ago, chose financial security, while Watson, who decided this year, chose her dream school.

During her senior year, Simons considered whether to pursue a degree in physics at the University of Rochester or at SUNY Binghamton.

Though she said she thought both schools had good physics programs, the difference in cost was about $40,000 a year.

The cost of attending the University of Rochester and living on campus for the 2013-14 school year is $61,340, while the on-campus cost for SUNY Binghamton for 2013-14 is $22,832, according to the U.S. Department of Education.

Though Rochester offered Simons additional financial aid, she decided on SUNY Binghamton to avoid accumulating student loan debt.

Student debt loads have become a major issue for graduates and government officials in the two years since Simons made her choice.

The New York Federal Reserve Bank says student loan debt now totals $1.2 trillion, and many students have postponed major purchases such as homes or new cars as they cope with loan payments.

Simons said choosing the less expensive public university was a hard decision, but money was the deciding factor.

"When my parents and I sat down and they said 'you have to make this decision,' I realized that part of the perfect school was having a school I wasn't going to be paying off when I'm 40," Simons said.

She has just finished her sophomore year at SUNY Binghamton. Though she wasn't sure at first, she said she knows now that she chose the right school.

"It's just a nice place, the people are friendly and I feel like I belong there," she said.

While Simons decided to forgo high student debt, Watson just made her decision to attend Syracuse University. Though the on-campus cost at Syracuse is $57,450, according to the U.S. Department of Education, Watson said she couldn't decline the opportunity to attend her dream school.

"I knew that Syracuse was my most expensive option, but it also seemed like my best option," she said. "I really couldn't pass up this offer; it's a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity."

Watson said she is prepared to take on the debt. She said she is looking into student loans and is working part-time to help cover the cost.

Both Watson and Simons received additional aid in the form of scholarships from Capital Communications Federal Credit Union. The scholarships, awarded at a breakfast ceremony Thursday morning, asked the applicants to discuss how the realities of applying for college varied from their expectations.

CAP COM awarded scholarships worth $2,500 each to 23 Capital Region students. Paula Stopera, CEO and president of CAP COM, said the scholarship committee asked about expectations because the credit union wants to learn how to better help students.