WORCESTER >> Growing up next to the beckoning gleam of the city's colleges, Rose Molina's daughter envisioned herself going to one of those schools one day.
"It was one of the things she'd talk about when she was very young," she said.
Now an 11th-grader at Worcester Technical High School, Sierra Molina and her family are encountering a different reality, as dreams take a back seat to dollars.
"We're going to struggle to send her to school. We'll do everything we can, without drowning in debt — whether that means she has to commute or stay close to home," Molina said. "We were just not equipped for this at all."
The Molinas are not alone, as families across the country grapple with the rising cost of higher education.
Accounting for inflation, the average annual tuition and fees at a private, four-year institution has nearly doubled over the past 25 years, from $17,094 in 1990-91 to $32,405 in 2015-16, according to the College Board, a nonprofit created in 1900 to expand access to higher education. Student loans have subsequently become a larger part of how parents are affording to send their kids to college, leading to a nationwide debt crisis that is spooking families and worrying higher education officials and lawmakers. According to the U.S. Department of Education, the country's collective student loan debt is now approximately $1.2 trillion.
But college financing experts believe the doom and gloom surrounding their industry is largely unwarranted, and that good planning coupled with realistic expectations will allow almost any family to find a campus that is a good fit. Some said they've also noticed more parents embracing that more pragmatic approach, especially since the Great Recession has changed the way many of them make financial decisions.
"I'm seeing parents be better consumers," said Julie Shields-Rutyna, director of college planning for the Massachusetts Educational Financing Authority. "And I'm so happy to see that trend."
Shields-Rutyna and other college planners recalled parents having a comparatively less urgent attitude toward paying for college in the past. Some bad habits continue to linger, however.
"We really try to impress upon (families) to not take out a lot of private loans," said Donna Connolly, director of youth access and career planning at the Worcester-based Massachusetts Education & Career Opportunities, which helps students at Worcester's public high schools plan for college. A rule of thumb, she said, is "don't take out more than what your (student's) first-year salary should be. I think that's very true."
Despite that advice, the percentage of U.S. students with loan debt increased from 65 to 69 percent from 2004 to 2014, according to Institute for College Access & Success. Thanks to the average debt load growing twice the rate of inflation over that period, the typical Massachusetts college graduate had nearly twice as much debt, close to $30,000, in 2014 compared to a 2004 graduate with just over $17,000 in debt, the organization reported.
Considering the potential hardship of those long-term costs, certified financial planner David Carr, president of the Carr Financial Group in Worcester, said he advises clients to think hard about whether college is even the right option for their student.
"My sense is that some parents are reassessing the value of college," he said. They are recognizing that certain trades can end up paying just as well as jobs that need a degree, without the huge upfront cost of a college education, he added: "It's a generational thing: Today, a (college degree) isn't as well regarded as it might have been in the '50s, '60s, '70s."
Carr said he most often hears that viewpoint from younger parents, while it's usually the oldest generation that wants to start saving for a child's higher education as soon as possible.
"Lately, it's been more of a multigenerational effort," he said, referring to families' saving for college. "It's been a grandparent calling and asking, 'My son or daughter has a child on the way — what can we do?' "
Several college planners said more parents also tend to have a more practical view of college education today and want their student to pick a campus based primarily on how it will help them land a good-paying job. Sometimes that leads to misconceptions about whether certain liberal arts degrees — and liberal arts colleges that specialize in them — are worth it, said Amy Murphy, director of the College of the Holy Cross's Center for Career Development.
"A lot of the work we do with students is myth-busting," she said. "There are plenty of opportunities out there. You can do well for yourself regardless of the industry."
More families are turning their focus to public colleges and universities, however, Connolly said; in Massachusetts, they tend to cost less than private institutions. Community colleges in particular have started to get more attention from prospective college students, she said.
"I think for too long, community colleges have had a stigma attached to them," Connolly said, "but I'm starting to see that shift."
Other education experts said the state's new price incentivized transfer programs launching this fall, which will allow students even greater freedom to move between community colleges and state universities, should make low-cost, two-year schools an even more attractive option.
But even with cheap options available, the conversation isn't any easier for families like the Molinas, who last week toured Northeastern University, where full-time tuition is just over $46,000 per year.
"(Sierra) loved it, of course, but it's very expensive," Molina said. "We're definitely shifting focus to state colleges. But those can also be expensive. We're just very anxious about this process."
Shields-Rutyna said anxiety is typical — "families panic," she said — but can also be an impediment. Like several planners interviewed for this story, she said parents don't always realize how many options are available to them to pay for college.
One of the worst side effects of that desperation, she said, is that some families may give up trying to save for college, figuring whatever they could put away would hardly put a dent in today's typical tuition bill.
With college costs continuing to rise, financial planners, college officials and lawmakers are looking more to college savings accounts as a possible solution to the affordability problem. "Families are definitely not saving enough," Shields-Rutyna said, but it's not entirely their fault.
The state Legislature, for instance, is finally addressing one of the ironic quirks in a state that is known around the country for its prestigious and plentiful colleges: Massachusetts doesn't offer a tax-incentivized 529 college savings plan, unlike 42 other states in the U.S.
"We feel it's a really important tool," especially for middle-class families just above the cutoff for most need-based financial aid, said Richard Doherty, president of the Association of Independent Colleges and Universities of Massachusetts, which has lobbied legislators to change the law.
A bill that would make contributions to 529 plans tax deductible was voted favorably out of the Committee on Revenue earlier this month and awaits action with the House Ways and Means Committee.
"I think there's a tremendous amount of support for it," Doherty said. "I believe there's an awareness that this is something we're out of step with with the rest of the country. And it's a way to bring private dollars into the college affordability discussion."
Among the supporters of the measure is Assumption College President Francesco Cesareo, who said there's been a "slow, gradual movement to get the Legislature to propose such a bill." Private college leaders like himself are especially interested in seeing the college cost dilemma solved without requiring their programs to become watered down.
"Finding ways to reduce expenses without reducing value and academic programming, cost containment — these are areas we're constantly looking at," he said.
A similar bill to the 529 legislation, versions of which were filed in both the House and Senate, would go a step further and establish a state match savings program, which would further incentivize residents to put away money for their children's college. The legislation specifically would allow the state to put a $250 seed payment in each family's account and contribute yearly matching amounts of up to $250 to account holders making less than 250 percent of the federal poverty line.
According to a recent survey by Sallie Mae, a publicly traded corporation that originates private education loans, among other products, families are already starting to save more for college. For instance, 32 percent of a typical family's college payments came from savings in 2014-15, an increase of 5 percentage points since 2012-13.
Even a little amount makes a big difference, according to Mark Bilotta, president of Massachusetts Education and Career Opportunities Inc.'s board of directors and author of "Paying for College: Before, During and After (2016 edition)."
"Especially for low-income families, establishing a regular practice of setting aside some amount of money on a regular basis is important," he said. "The reason? Families that are saving change the tone in the home from 'if you go to college' to 'when you go to college.' The amount saved is less important."
For Lynne Myers, director of financial aid at Holy Cross, if there was any casualty of the college debt crisis she worried about most, it was those low-income, first-generation college students.
"(They heard) they'd lose money, they'd lose money, and then they'd become discouraged by that message," she said.
But that population hasn't decreased at Holy Cross, she said — a promising sign and testament to the college's financial aid program, which commits to covering the cost gap for any students with an established need who otherwise can't afford to attend the school. While not every need can be accommodated, Myers said, Holy Cross is dedicated to keeping that service in perpetuity. "It's something that's held sacred here," she said.
Other college officials and financial planners also pointed out that the costs at private colleges in some cases can be whittled down to public college-level costs through grants, scholarships and other aid, some of which is often offered by the colleges themselves.
"(The notion) that colleges are doing nothing, that's not the case. There are all sorts of programs that try to make it easier for students to go to college," said U.S. Rep. James P. McGovern, D-Worcester. "I think everyone's trying to grapple with this. And at the end of the day, government has a role, too."
McGovern said he supports floated ideas like allowing families to refinance high-interest loans and establishing income-driven loan repayment plans. He also wants the government to start investing again in federal aid programs like Pell grants, which have been "nickeled and dimed" by lawmakers for too long, he said.His worry is that Congress isn't going to do anything right now, however. "What's frustrating to me is a lot of the talk out here is 'Let's point fingers at somebody else.'" he said.
Families aren't waiting to see whether that will change. Even some college students are starting to realize they'll need to think a little differently in the future — Joe Metrano, a sophomore architectural studies major at Holy Cross, for example, said he and his family have had to take out several loans to afford his education.
"I think in the future, if I have a family of my own, I will actually try to start a savings fund," he said. "I would definitely do something different."