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Free ride or pay the fare? 

There's more than one way to get the sheepskin.

Sam Blair has been guiding Little Rock high school students through the agonies of college applications for a long time, continuing into his retirement from Central High School 11 years ago. He would never, he says, advise a student that college isn't worth, say, $250,000, which is what a four-year education at Sarah Lawrence in New York would cost. It's up to the family to decide the value, whether the sacrifice it may mean is worth it.

Sarah Lawrence, at $58,716 for the 2011-2012 year, is the most expensive college in the country — but only by a couple of thousand dollars a year. Some people — rational people — might say that you could send a kid around the globe with a private tutor and he'd get a great education for less money. In the best of all possible worlds, that might work. But in the real world, it's the diploma that counts.

Most families don't plunk down a quarter million dollars for their children's education. Fortunately, they don't have to. Schools now use the FAFSA (a federal aid form) to determine what parents can afford (unfortunately, usually a sum higher than the parents can pay without hurting) and try to fill in the gaps. Blair knew a couple of students from middle-class families who decided on different ways to pay for school.

Afshar Sanati is in college and traveling the world, and he's getting paid to do it. The 2009 Central High graduate was president of the student body, a National Merit finalist, an Eagle Scout ... the kind of student that the University of Virginia ($48,988 out of state) and the University of North Carolina ($41,140) want. Both offered him money, but would have left him $20,000-$25,000 short each year. His choice, as he put it to this reporter, was this: "$100,000 [debt] over four years versus getting paid."

Sanati chose getting paid. He attends the University of Arkansas on a Bodenhamer Fellowship, which pays tuition and fees and a stipend of $1,000 a semester. Worth $50,000 over five years, the fellowship also pays for study abroad; last year Sanati went to Argentina for a month to study Spanish and to Iran for three weeks on a trip arranged by the Walton School of Business, where he is a student.

"I had my heart set on going out of state," Sanati said. But after the business major made a cost/benefit analysis, he said, "it didn't make sense to me" to turn down the fellowship. A free ride to the U of A meant easing the burden on his parents and it "keeps the options open for graduate school."

Sanati hasn't looked back. "I'm very happy about the decision I made," he said. A lot of out-of-state schools are "cutting-edge" in what they offer, but if the U of A is less so, the ability to study abroad — with the unique education that offers — makes up the difference, he said. Sanati has been impressed with the classes and says his professors are "top-notch." He said it's like Central High — where you can make things as easy or hard on yourself as you want. Sanati made it hard, with enough Advanced Placement credits that he could have entered the U of A as a sophomore. But if they're paying you to study — and you love school — why rush?

Sanati, a member of Phi Delta Theta fraternity and the student government liaison to the athletic department, says if "you're very driven and a goal setter" — which he is — you'll get the education you want at the university. He's got a plan — get a degree in business, work for a while, maybe get an MBA, maybe work in politics.

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