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Many private colleges struggle to balance priorities – financial aid for neediest versus merit scholarships

Laura Martinelli was accepted by the college of her choice, Emerson, but can’t attend because she didn’t receive a scholarship.
Laura Martinelli was accepted by the college of her choice, Emerson, but can’t attend because she didn’t receive a scholarship.Suzanne Kreiter/Globe Staff

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With a year at a private college now approaching $60,000, with the student debt of Americans having recently crossed the $1 trillion threshold, economists are increasingly describing student debt as the next housing bubble.

Young people who borrow too heavily never escape the consequences: they are less likely to buy a home or a car, according to recent research, and can't even discharge student loans in bankruptcy.

Yet hundreds of college presidents, apart from those at only the wealthiest institutions, face a moral dilemma: how to use a limited financial aid budget to do what’s best for the institution without leaving deserving young people out in the cold.

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