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How Many PB & J Sandwiches Does It Take to Pay For College?

At the start of 2010, my husband and I made a resolution that drastically changed our lifestyle. It caused us both joy and pain. Some people scoffed. Others thought we were weird. We decided to live on much less than we earned in an effort to become debt-free.

In January 2012, we had met our goal. We were free of student loans. Free of both of car notes. Our many credit cards all had zero balances. And while we weren't able to pay off our mortgage, we did refinance to obtained a much lower interest rate.

We ended up paying off about $45,000 of debt in 24 months. Now we have emergency savings, and we are working toward saving for future big purchases and retirement. According to the plan we set with our financial advisor, our next step is to start saving for our children's college education.

So imagine what I was thinking about yesterday as I chaperoned my 7th grade students on a college tour of Loyola University? Money.

Loyola's a beautiful, even majestic, private campus on the North Side of Chicago that has old and new buildings that abut Lake Michigan. I thought, this school is amazing! I wish all my students could go here.... I want my daughters to go here.... I want to go here! I asked, "How much is tuition, with fees and room and board?" What? $45,000? A year!?!

I thought about the two years my husband and I ate peanut butter and jelly sandwiches instead of ordering out when we didn't feel like cooking. I thought about the hundreds of coupons I clipped. All the "stay-cations" we had to take because we couldn't afford a real vacation. I'm not a baker, but I even tried to bake and decorate my one of my daughter's birthday cake so as not to spend extra money. (It wasn't pretty.)

It took us two years of pinching pennies to pay off $45,000—so I know exactly how much one year tuition, fees, and room and board at Loyola University costs!

As I looked around the school's impeccably beautiful campus and learned of its countless offerings, it reminded me of a movie set. This is what a quintessential liberal arts college campus should look like, feel like. Yet everywhere I turned I saw a different construction site. And several of the buildings on the tour were less than twelve years old.

Our tour guides were Loyola students and leaders of the Hispanic student association. They absolutely loved their school, but and they lamented that each year their tuition rises about 3 to 4 percent. In essence, the students are paying for the construction and for the expensive artwork—some pieces costing half a million dollars each—that the university buys to adorn its lovely campus.

But most kids from the neighboring West Rogers Park community can't afford to go to Loyola. Hector, one of our tour guides, said that the tuition is cost prohibitive, even if the kids in the community were accepted into the school and get partial grants or scholarships. In fact, West Rogers Park is one of Chicago's most diverse neighborhoods but the street violence has killed many young people just beyond Loyola's pristine sidewalks, he said.

This situation is not unique to Loyola. Yesterday, the 6th graders at my school took a tour of the University of Chicago, which is located on the South Side of the city, also close to the lakefront. It is almost as beautiful and just as expensive. The communities that border three sides the U of C, are also economically challenged and plagued by gang activity.

I attended the private liberal arts Dominican University, but back then tuition ranged from $13,000 to $17,000 per year. I took out loans, worked a job (two or three jobs in the summer) and I pieced together random scholarships to help pay for school. Both of my masters degrees—from Columbia University and National Louis University—were expensive but paid in full by generous organizations. I am currently looking for a sponsor to help me pay for doctorate studies in education.

The college tour was inspiring, but it also left me concerned. How will my low-income middle school students afford a good college education? Even the state universities have tuition and fees upwards of $28,000 a year. Isn't he government is cutting back on the college grants it offers? Can private college scholarship funds keep up with tuition inflation?

When Hector and his friends finish undergraduate school at Loyola, some of them with have six-figure loans with three- to six-percent interest rates. I pray they find jobs quickly upon graduation. But not just any job—jobs in their fields of study, that led to good paying careers.

As for me, I'm hoping to have my house paid off by the time my 10-year old daughter leaves for college. It would be nice to spend at least one day of my adult life completely debt-free.

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