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Students rely more on grandparents to help pay for college

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Students at U of M
University of Minnesota students chat on the campus mall in this file photo. More college students are relying on financial help from their grandparents to pay the cost of their education, according to a new survey.
MPR Photo/Tim Post

The cost of a year college now averages more than $20,000.  That's forcing students to become financial problem-solvers of sorts.  They piece together a patchwork of funding from their parents, scholarships, loans and part-time jobs.

And now students are increasingly turning to their grandparents for help in paying for college, according to a new survey. 

Recent graduate Andy Post is typical of those students. Post (no relation to reporter Tim Post) graduated this spring with a degree in marketing from the University of Minnesota's Carlson School of Management. 

He paid his way through four years at the U of M with funds from several sources.  He got money from his parents, he took out private and government loans, he earned scholarships, and he worked a part-time job. 

The rest came from his grandparents -- both sets of grandparents.  One set co-signed a loan, the other gave him as much as $10,000 over four years. 

"My grandparents helped me pay for the place where I lived, they helped me pay for things outside of school like food, housing, stuff like that," he said. 

Green chemistry class
St. Olaf College professor Bob Hanson (center) works with students on a chemistry lesson.
MPR Photo/Tim Post

Post's grandparents helped with tuition, in part, because his parents were tapped out.  They both run small businesses, and have plenty of other financial responsibilities.   

"They're still in a position where they're paying off their home and all sorts of other bills, and the grandparents just don't have those other obligations as near as much as they do," said Post. 

Of course there have always been grandparents willing, and financially secure enough, to help pay their grandchildren's college tuition.  But there's some indication that the rising cost of tuition, and the lagging economy, have grandparents pitching in more.  

A recent survey by Sallie Mae and Gallup shows the average amount students now spend on a year of college -- everything from tuition and books to food and housing -- is just over $24,000.   That's nearly 25 percent more than last year. 

The survey shows that to pay for that increase,  parents are pitching in more cash and students are borrowing more money.  

The survey didn't specifically ask how much assistance grandparents are offering.  But Sallie Mae spokeswoman Patricia Nash Christel says 16 percent of students get money from relatives who aren't their parents.  

"This year, one out of five students received assistance from grandpa and grandma and other relatives and friends," said Christel. "And they really opened their wallets.  In fact, it went up from $5,500 the previous year to $9,200 in assistance this year."

While it's hard to pinpoint how much is actually coming from grandparents, anecdotal evidence from college officials seems to show that grandma and grandpa are definitely helping out.  

Kathy Ruby is the financial aid director for St. Olaf College in Northfield. 

"It feels like there may be more, but we don't know for sure," said Kathy Ruby, financial aid director at St. Olaf College in Northfield. "[Grandparents] are calling and asking, and we're hearing about it in conversation."

Ruby and her financial aid counselors say more grandparents are calling the college directly, offering to make payments on their grandchildren's tuition. 

Ruby's theory is that parents are suffering in this economy, and that grandparents, even though their savings have taken a hit as well, are on more stable ground financially.  

Information on how much help college students get from their grandparents isn't specified on financial aid forms from the government, or from individual schools. That makes trends hard to track. If anything, it appears aid from grandparents could be underreported.

Sally Baum, a higher education policy analyst, says students may hesitate to report to their college and to the government how much money their grandparents are giving them.  

"They know if they say they're going to get money from their grandparents they might lose financial aid, so they're not likely to answer that honestly," Baum said. 

Students aren't asked if they expect help from grandparents on forms like the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA.  Although there is one question, buried deep in the document, that asks students if they received cash support from someone other than their parents in the previous year.