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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.

Not every student, however, knows where he wants to end up before he takes his first college class. Billy Hupp has "no idea what I want to do," but he knows he wants to explore his many interests — including jazz and theater — at a strong liberal arts school.

Like Sanati, Hupp, 18, is a National Merit Scholar, great student and was accepted to several top-notch schools. And like Sanati, Hupp was offered a full ride to a state school, Auburn University in Alabama, which, he said, has used that strategy to enroll more National Merit scholars than any other school in the country.

Hupp was also accepted at Washington University, Wake Forest and Emory. Emory ($55,992) offered the best scholarship package of the three, $36,000 a year for four years. He'll have to take out a loan, and his parents will make up the difference. When he graduates, he'll owe about $22,000 and his parents will have paid about $40,000.

So why turn down Auburn?

"Billy's mom and I had lots of conversations," Hupp's father, Robert Hupp, said. They balanced cost versus what school would benefit their son the most. "For Billy, that happened to be Emory." Billy Hupp said the campus visit helped him make up his mind — his guide at Auburn stressed the football team and campus life and scarcely mentioned the academics.

Hupp has an older brother at Middlebury College in Vermont, and a younger brother who is a junior at Central. Robert Hupp — who is the director of the Arkansas Repertory Theatre — said he is committed to giving each child the same opportunity.

"Our educational philosophy supports the importance of the liberal arts," Robert Hupp said. His son added that had he been thinking of a degree in engineering or architecture, he would have considered the U of A.

Robert Hupp reflected that when he was in college, at Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pa., the cost was $6,000 a year "and we thought that was outrageous." He called the way colleges calculate tuition today as a thing "unto itself," with studies showing that some schools charge more because of the perception people have that a more expensive college is a better college.

The high-performing Hupp and Sanati are stand-outs, both in their school record and economic background. Not all students are offered free rides, and some must even work their way through, making getting a degree a drawn-out procedure.

Nathan Seamon went to Hendrix College for a semester. "I learned a lot, but not about academics," he said; his parents pulled him out for failing and enrolled him in the University of Arkansas at Little Rock. "I didn't have my head right," Seamon, 26, said, and he dropped out again to go to work for his father. "It only took a couple of years finishing concrete," Seamon said, to convince him to go back to school. But his parents said he had to pay for it.

Seamon, who happens to be a state champion arm wrestler, works full-time (he's a probation officer), and tries to get in four classes a year. He pays around $700 a class, unless he's enrolled in two at once, in which case the price per class drops a bit; sometimes he'll skip a semester to earn money to pay for the classes. Because of his early Fs and some extra math class requirements, Seamon has been slow to advance — after seven years, he is just now a sophomore. But he thinks things will pick up now and hopes to have a bachelor's degree in another five years at the most. Like the winning arm wrestler he is, he persists. "Nowadays, you've got to have a college degree in something, even if it's not related to your field," he said.

Peggy Seamon, Nathan's mother, says she and her husband are proud of him for going back to school. "We help him some," she said, "but he seems to value it because he is doing it on his own."

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