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Big Tuition Costs in Big-Sky Country

The Barretts are in an upper-middle-class bind - they make too much to get college aid, but struggle to pay tuition for their two children on their own

Ten years ago, New Yorkers Ken and Pat Barrett heeded Horace Greeley's homily by loading up their young kids in a car and moving west to find their dream.

Searching for a simpler life, they settled in Bozeman, Mont., with a view of the Hyalite Mountains out their back-yard window, a trout stream not far from their front door, and an unharried pace envied by friends back East.

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Now, however, the Barretts, like a lot of other families, are "sitting on the bubble," experts say.

As their son enters his first full year at the University of Montana and their daughter nears high school graduation, they lament that pretty scenery does little to help settle the mounting debts of college-tuition costs.

While they are pleased with the modest relief they stand to gain from the new federal tax cuts, they know they are headed for a major financial struggle.

"The Barretts are very typical Americans," says Randy Newberg, a certified public accountant and financial planner at the Bozeman accounting firm of Jacobsen, Guza and Newberg "The new legislation will help them somewhat but it's not going to be the golden parachute that most people were looking for or really need."

Ken took a salary cut when he left his conservation fund-raising job with The Hudson Riverkeeper in New York, and Pat stayed at home raising the kids. Still, they were able to sell their first home at the peak of the New York real estate market and pocket a tidy profit.

With cash in hand, they avoided a steep monthly mortgage payment by purchasing a custom-built home in Bozeman, they bought a new car, and still had enough money left over for a small nest egg.

This year, with Pat working again, the Barretts will earn a combined income of $65,000 - well above the national average for dual wage earners. Yet they also grapple with a conundrum endemic to America's upper middle class.

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Financial planners say they fall into a trap of earning too much money to have their children qualify for financial aid but hardly enough to cover rising college-tuition costs without taking out a loan from the bank.

"They are forced to make much harder decisions than their contemporaries in income brackets both above and below them because they're neither rich nor poor. How much they actually benefit from the tax package depends on how Congress ultimately decides to define what constitutes the middle class," Mr. Newberg says. While the tax bill has been signed, there will still be some negotiation on the definition of "middle class." Republicans favor a higher threshold of income than Democrats.

Newberg adds that many parents who have what appears to be an impressive income on paper are actually hurting. They are deferring contributions to their retirement funds because of the current demands of providing an education for their kids and other amenities.

Costs pile up

After paying the orthodontist for braces, ponying up for annual downhill ski passes, and modest expenses associated with Bozeman's outdoor recreation lifestyle, the Barretts barely made ends meet on Ken's $45,000 salary. It was a stretch, he says, to put $2,000 into an Independent Retirement Account.

As a result, Pat has reentered the job market as a real estate broker for the Montana Homes and Land Co., and Ken recently left his old job with the Greater Yellowstone Coalition, an environmental organization, to found the Orion Hunter's Institute, a national nonprofit group devoted to promoting "ethical" hunting - shooting game according to a certain set of rules.

Despite their rising income, the Barretts say the prospect of having two kids in college beginning in 1999 is daunting. Their 19-year-old son, Bradley, is spending the summer fighting forest fires to help pay for his in-state tuition, room, board and other costs - about $10,000 - at the University of Montana, Missoula. Meanwhile, Ken doubts that his daughter, Emily - an honor student - will have the option of attending an Ivy League-caliber school as he did.

"Even if we could afford it, we would not encourage our children to spend between $30,000 and $35,000 per year on an undergraduate degree," notes Ken, a graduate of Cornell University.

For them, the $1,500 tuition credit (which translates into about $5,000 over four years) does little good when the difference of affordability is measured in the tens of thousands of dollars.

Although pitched as a generous gift from lawmakers and the president to the masses, Barrett says the tax plan is nothing more than a diversion to placate voters.

"It's a smoke screen," Barrett says cynically. "True tax reform, which includes addressing the crisis of our national debt, should involve cleaning up the incredible waste in the defense industry, Medicare, and Medicaid, but it ain't going to happen."

What about simplicity?

The Barretts and Newberg agree that revisions to the tax code - designed ostensibly to simplify their lives - may, in fact, complicate them. Many families may now have to seek professional advice at tax time on how to interpret the new provisions.

"During the 1994 elections, everybody talked about the need for tax simplification, but this is a giant step backward," Newberg says. "This ranks as one of the most complex and confusing tax bills we've had in a long time. As accountants, we share the frustration of our clients."

If the Barretts derive any solace from their predicament, it is found is examining their priorities.

"The mountain view will not sustain us financially but to say it isn't a daily source of joy and relief would be to lie," Ken says. "One of the things my generation has pondered more than the previous generation is how to find a balance between financial and spiritual well-being. It has helped us redefine what a rich life really is."

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