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Financial aid saves those without savings

The way Pat Melius looks at it, his daughter, Nicole, is getting a private university education at a public university price.

Nicole is a sophomore at Pacific Lutheran University (PLU), a 3,800-student, private university in Tacoma, Wash.

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This small school comes with a big price tag: Tuition and fees for 1998-99 are $15,680, with room and board another $4,890, for a total of $20,570. That doesn't include books, incidentals, and the added costs of a semester in Germany, which Nicole plans for next year. The total: About $96,000 for four years.

"We were a little nervous at first," Mr. Melius says.

But the Meliuses - Pat, a branch manager for the state Services for Families and Children agency, and his wife, Faye, a nursing instructor for a community college - did their homework.

They researched different education options, including local public Oregon State University, and, in the end, they didn't count the cost.

More than half of the cost of PLU is covered by financial aid.

"We wanted to give her any opportunities that were available. We were fortunate enough to get some grants, which helped us deal with it," Melius says.

Nicole got a $2,000 grant because her dad attended graduate school at PLU. And she earns $1,000 in a work-study program per semester, which she applies toward living expenses.

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When Nicole graduates, the family will have about $38,000 in student loans to repay - just in time for their son, Matt, to start college.

For Matt, they've taken a different approach:

"About four years ago, we made some investments for him in stocks," Melius says. "Hopefully by time he starts college we will have at least enough for expenses."

Also, Matt has decided to try South Salem High School's International Baccalaureate program, where students take advanced placement classes. If they pass the tests, the students get college credit, and that's tuition that won't have to be paid.

Do they wish they saved more for Nicole?

Yes and no, Melius says. One of the reasons that financial aid was available to them was that they had no savings. But then again, savings could offset the payments of loans.

"I would not discourage anybody from trying to get your child in the school she wants," Melius says.

Nicole's goal is to get into some type of international work, possibly working at an embassy. She's also considering law school, which makes her dad sigh.

"What the heck, it's only money."

Some advice from one who's been there: Start your research at the end of your child's sophomore year and the beginning of the junior year, says Pat Melius.

"If you can put money away, do it. If you can't, don't be discouraged, because financial aid can help."

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