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How willing are parents to pay for college?

Are parents shirking their responsibility to help their children through college? The suggestion will come as a surprise to those working two jobs and carrying second mortgages for this very purpose. But observers of the college scene are making it in earnest. ``Today, Americans want their children to attend college,'' wrote Terry Hartle of the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, in a recent paper. ``But some are unwilling to make the sacrifices that many parents made in the past.''

If this is true, then the Reagan administration has at least some justification for seeking drastic cuts in federal student loans and aid. Bruce Carnes, Deputy Undersecretary of Education, says that the rapid increases in federal loans to students from middle-income families in the late '70s ``confirms'' the shirking-parent theory.

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But nobody can say for sure whether he's right or wrong, because no one has gathered the data. Hartle concedes that his conclusion regarding parental effort is just ``informed speculation.''

Financial aid officials at colleges and universities think there's a grain of truth to the charge that parents aren't digging down as deep into their pockets. ``Certainly, some parents feel that way,'' says Judy Bologna, the director of financial aid at Bradford College in Bradford, Mass.

But these officials say such cases are not the rule. And the problems families face, they say, will not be helped by cuts in student aid.

Sometimes there are understandable reasons why parental contributions go down, and student loans go up. An increasing portion of college students, for example, are really adults long gone from the family nest. ``Half the `kids' out there are not kids,'' says Marilyn McAdam, a legislative associate for the House Education and Labor Committee.

Then too, divorce is greatly complicating the question of paying for college. Kitty Porterfield, college advisor at T.C. Williams High School in Alexandria, Va., estimates that 60 percent of the students who seek financial aid from her school are from ``nontraditional'' families. It's the ``hottest and most difficult question right now,'' says Alan Wagner, a research associate at the State University of New York at Albany.

On paper, federal programs seem to encourage parents to let Uncle Sam pay. Families with savings get less in federal grants and loans than those without, so some might say ``Why bother?''

But by and large, financial aid officials reject the notion that federal student aid has turned middle-class parents into welfare cases. ``I don't think there's a `free ride' ethic out there,'' says Jim Belvin, director of financial aid at Duke.

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``Parents we see are digging deep,'' adds Ms. Porterfield.

One thing on which all sides seem to agree is that families should be saving more to help pay college bills. Arthur Jackson, who heads the financial aid office at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, talks of a ``higher level of consumerism'' that displaces education on the list of family priorities. ``We are dealing with a credit-card mentality,'' Mr. Jackson observes.

In ``focus group'' discussions with middle income ($20,000 to $30,000/year) parents last Spring, the National Institute Of Independent Colleges and Universities found that none were putting money away for college bills. Some parents said they didn't have it, while others said they didn't see how saving could do much good. The prospect of $50,000 per child in college costs can be overwhelming. ``I was struck by the argument, `I can't possibly do it all, so why should I start?''' recalls Kathleen Brouder of the College Board, who ran the focus groups.

Many parents apparently don't realize that student aid isn't just for the poorest students, that it can fill the gap between what parents can save and what they need, Brouder says. And parents need more help in setting up a savings program early. ``I would rather see positive advice on how to save,'' says Jackson, than the attacks on federal assistance coming from the Department of Education.

Dennis Martin, head of financial aid at Washington University in St. Louis, sums it up this way. ``We need to rekindle the role that parents play,'' he says. ``But we also need to create the means for parents to pay.''

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