CINCINNATI, Oct 27 (Reuters) University of Cincinnati student Sharne Hairston tries to study during her part-time job at the campus information desk, but she also spends time worrying about her growing student loans.
''Hopefully it doesn't take me 20 years to pay them off, but it depends on the job I get,'' said Hairston, 22. ''My aunt is still paying her student loans, and she graduated the year after I was born.'' The cost of college has loomed large for American families for generations, but steep tuition increases in recent years have ratcheted up anxiety among students and parents just as analysts insist Americans need more education to compete internationally.
The costs Hairston faces in the world's most expensive higher education system are typical. Year-round tuition for her criminal justice program is about 10,000 dollars, room and board is 4,800 dollars, and books -- well, they're a luxury she can't afford.
''I try to borrow the ones I really need. Sometimes you can talk to a professor and they'll loan one,'' said Hairston, who estimates she'll graduate with about 40,000 dollars in student debt.
A report released on Monday by the College Board showed the average cost of annual tuition at a public university was 6,185 dollars in 2007-2008, a 6.6 per cent jump from the year before.
Add in room and board and the average cost surges to 13,589 dollars.
The cost of a private university is much higher, at 23,712 dollars for tuition and 32,307 dollars all included. Expenses at America's most prestigious colleges are higher still.
While education costs are hammering other developed nations, university fees in Canada, Australia, Asia and Europe are a fraction of those in America. In some countries, tuition fees have only recently been imposed.
With college costs a big worry for middle-class voters in the November 2008 presidential election, all three of the front-running Democratic candidates have promised reform. Last month, President George W Bush signed a law to cut federal subsidies to student lenders and raise student grant funding.
THEY ALL HAVE DREAMS Alexandra Graf, 47, and her husband Bob, 56, know the prohibitive costs of universities all too well. One daughter is in her second year of college, and three younger siblings dream of going to great institutions of higher learning. But Graf said she and her husband have ''basically zero'' ability to help with the costs.
''As business owners, there are always things we need our own loans for -- right now it's a new exhaust system in our kitchen,'' said Graf, who owns an inn and restaurant in Danbury, New Hampshire, with her husband.
''It's not that I don't want to be good for my kids, they all have dreams, but I don't know how other people do it.'' The family project is helping all four kids save for college and win scholarships to defray costs. They pay the children to work in the restaurant -- the youngest has been a hostess since she was 9 -- and spend hours researching scholarships and helping with applications and essays.
Eldest daughter Chelsea, 19, has signed up with the Air Force to pay the bulk of her 37,000 dollars annual college costs. She works part-time as a security guard to pay for the rest.
''We slip her 50 dollars or 100 dollars when she's home, and load her up with groceries,'' Graf said.
Loans, grants and tax benefits play a crucial role in bridging the ever-widening gap between the financial resources of most students and rising college costs. The average students at public universities get 3,600 dollars in grants and tax benefits; at private universities, 9,300 dollars, according to the College Board.
But 40 per cent of financial aid comes in the form of federal loans, with repayment typically beginning six months after graduation and spreading decades into the future.
Professors who remember a more carefree time say the financial burden has changed the face of college campuses in a single generation.
''The students are working so much more, and they are sicker and more fatigued than I remember in the 1960s,'' said Jerry Lewis, a sociology professor of Ohio's Kent State University, where anti-war protests raged during the Vietnam era.
He said students now often work full-time while taking a full university course load, leaving little time for philosophical debate, student activism or extra-curricular activities.
''One of the things a college student used to have was discretionary time, and that has virtually disappeared,'' said Lewis. ''They're not taking the time to smell the roses.'' REUTERS LPB RN0856