A short-stick generation

Jackie Mantey

Students struggle to pay tuition, Kent State tries to give assistance

The record number of tuition dollars coming from students and their families’ pocketbooks has left many people asking why our generation seems to be getting the short end of the higher education stick. As Ohio institutions and aid programs face decreasing state and federal funding, students and administrations are shouldering the resulting burden.

This two-day series looks at the evolution of the cost students and universities are struggling under to pay for a college education, and how and why tuition is so high. Kent State has worked to find areas to cut and still stay competitive. The past price of education seems impossible, and the present situation leaves many students finding alternative routes to pay off their debts. But the future could be bright for Kent State and its fellow Ohio universities.

Today: A short-stick generation

Decades of students have been struggling to pay their way through college, but years worth of debt now seem like an unavoidable part of 21st century college. Read how and why things are so different, and what Kent State is developing to help its students.

Friday: Looking forward

Students and families aren’t the only ones feeling the burn of limited funding. Read about how Kent State has stayed competitive, what cuts have been made and where pennies have been pinched to keep tuition at the state average.

It’s 4:15 p.m. and Christa Whitehair is surrounded by books and is colorfully adorned by a dark green apron.

A cash register rings, causing her to look up from her open textbook.

The senior education major is employed at the University Bookstore where she works four days a week. And not a moment is wasted.

“It’s really difficult,” she said. “We put in a full course load of work, other part time jobs, trying to see family; balancing everything is hard.”

Along with working, Whitehair is a freshman orientation instructor and sister of Delta Zeta sorority, all while trying to find time for that infamous social life.

She is paying for her education through student loans and said working has become a necessary addition to her schedule.

Put simply, she knows she has to pay for it somehow.

That statement doesn’t seem to be too uncommon as nearly 17 million college students across the United States are finding the means to pay for a higher education – a cost that has been continuously rising.

Decades of students have been struggling to pay their way through college, but years worth of debt now seem like an unavoidable part of 21st century higher education. There are several factors that have caused such costly tuition for students, and Kent State is looking to help.

Them vs. Us

Whitehair is not alone in her endeavors. In 2003, 80 percent of undergraduates going to school in the U.S. were employed, and 39 percent were employed full time, according to The National Center for Education.

When Jimi Hendrix was on the Top 40 and nobody could walk down the street without seeing bell bottom pants and platform shoes, balancing employment and class was still in order to pay the college bills. Those jobs, however, tended to go a lot further.

“There was a time when in college you didn’t have to take out loans. You could get a part-time job and a summer job, and, if you were frugal, you could pay for school and books,” said David Creamer, vice president for administration, who works closely with the university budget and has helped with determining tuition at three different universities for the past 14 years. “That’s just not possible today.”

Today’s Kent State students pay $7,800 more a semester than Creamer’s peers would have in 1971. Similar rises have been seen everywhere in U.S. institutions of higher learning throughout the past several decades.

Inflation rates in tow, national average college tuitions increase about 8 percent per year, according to the College Board – meaning the cost of college doubles every nine years. In 2006, public four-year universities’ costs for tuition, fees, room and board increased from $22,240 for the 2000 to 2001 school year to $30,367 in 2006 to 2007.

In 2006, Kent State saw a 6 percent increase in tuition.

As tuition went up, financial aid came down, leaving many families, as well as working college students, feeling the descent into the growing deficit.

“The relative cost of higher education is higher today. A greater share is being paid by family incomes,” Creamer said.

Between 2000 and 2005, the College Board reported the average cost of tuition has increased 20 percent, not bad when compared to the 44 percent increase in tuition seen between 1990 and 1996.

The problem? Tuition grew faster than the average family income. The median household income dropped 2.7 percent in those five years, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

In addition, interest rates for PLUS loans to parents increased in the past four years, according to the U.S. Department of Education.

These factors cause a college education to become steadily out of reach for some families as they work to send more than one child to school, Creamer said.

Beyond the numbers

Besides the statistical spikes in tuition costs, Creamer said Generation Y’s higher expectations for a college experience directly affect how the university makes cuts in academic programs or campus activities that enhance that experience – which could lead to bumps in tuition.

This evolving ideology of what college should be has been affected by the emphasis society and employers have put on the need for a degree and diploma. The Census Bureau reported in October that in 2004, an individual with a bachelor’s degree earned an average of $51,554 a year.

Compare that to the $28,645 earned annually by someone with only a high school diploma.

The College Board reports that more students today are also continuing their education with graduate work. Their average annual income? $78,093.

Erin Kleman, a doctoral student in communications studies, said deciding to spend four more years at a university can seem daunting – especially while paying for the undergraduate courses already completed. But there are ways around it.

Whenever students ask her questions about grad school, she said she always recommends that they find “someone else to pay for it.”

“Relative to the cost of an undergraduate degree, graduate school costs are incredibly expensive,” she said. “But students who want to go on to graduate school should not let the money stand in their way.”

Kleman said many departments offer graduate assistantships that pay for tuition or provide work in residence life.

“But even if students can’t find a way to get a free education, I still think they should consider doing graduate work,” she said. “The experience is well worth the investment.”

While most would agree with Kleman’s reasoning to stick through numerous years of college, Whitehair said it’s a pretty tricky cycle.

She said her generation feels a lot of pressure to get a degree to get a good job, or to even be considered for a good job. And while she knows many benefits will come from the diploma she will soon receive, cheaper success stories have proven to be discouraging.

A friend of hers didn’t finish college, but found full-time employment that pays enough for him to live comfortably enough to afford a boat.

“I’m a little envious. He dropped out of school, paid off his loans and I will never make as much money as him,” Whitehair said. “But I guess he just got lucky.”

Creamer said even though higher education costs for individual students have incited credible “reasons to panic,” there are many options for struggling undergrads worried about financial difficulties – options that are new for the current generation, such as online degrees and better regional campuses.

“Going to a regional campus is certainly not bad, but it’s bad if they feel obligated to make that choice,” Creamer said of the tough choices many students are forced to make because of other financial obligations.

A statewide struggle

The cause behind those “tough choices” has been a result of the state government’s similar situation.

As Ohio’s economy has suffered setbacks during the past five years, the state government has been forced to make “difficult” decisions as to how much financial weight was given to higher education, Creamer said.

A delicate house of cards is supported by monetary state support – industry, welfare, education and security. In the Buckeye State, the higher education card took a slight tumble.

During the past 10 years, higher education expenses in Ohio increased 4 percent annually, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland. But in 2003 and 2004, higher education took significant cutbacks, and the Ohio Board of Regent’s 2005 Performance Report for Ohio’s Colleges and Universities reported that tuition in Ohio was 45 percent higher than the national average that year. The board’s 2004 report said that an Ohio student paid more than $2,300 more per year than a student at a typical U.S. public university.

Creamer said federal aid has helped support students in years past, but some recent developments could lead to much of it fizzling out.

According to the College Board, from 1990 to 2004, total federal aid grew from approximately $29 billion to $122 billion – nearly 300 percent – but since then, students relying on government support to pay for school have seen deduction after deduction in grant and loan programs.

The Deficit Reduction Act, signed by President George W. Bush in February, will cut at least $12 billion from federal student loan programs, according to National Public Radio. Total Pell Grant funding was $13.6 billion in the 2004 to 2005 academic year and dropped to $12.7 billion in 2005 to 2006.

In the Spring 2007 semester, the maximum Pell Grant amount of $4,050 will cover 33 percent of the cost of full tuition at the average public four-year university based on 2005 to 2006 rates of tuition, according to College Board.

There could be several reasons causing that reduction, said Mark Evans, director of Student Financial Aid, but much of it lies in the larger amount of money needed for security issues and the war in Iraq.

“There are a lot of competing interests for federal dollars,” Evans said.

Education, however, and student sacrifices for it, has become a hot topic of debate. National and state governing bodies have been generating more discussion about how to reduce the financial burden, and a new face for Ohio government after November’s elections could instigate a larger emphasis on higher education in the state budget, Creamer said.

Speculation, however, can’t solve an individual student’s current problem, and Kent State is working to help.

Saving the bank account

Even with the high amount of students relying on financial aid, a deficit of awareness about how to use it is the number one cause of students struggling to pay for college besides simply raising the funds, said Sylvia Bustard, assistant director for Student Financial Aid.

“Many students lack the knowledge about the (FAFSA) renewal process,” she said, adding that many don’t know of certain programs they may be eligible for.

Constance Dubick, associate director for financial aid, said Student Financial Aid is working hard to assist families and spread the word about changes and deadlines in financial aid programs. Several outreaches to high school guidance counselors and scholarship expos date their calendars, and Kent State made several new investments in scholarships and access grants this year.

Dubick and Evans said the staff is constantly working on an extensive online service and has created a unique way to reach this generation’s college students.

“The students in college now are a part of the gamer generation,” Evans said. “We have videos to tailor to that audience and meet expectations.”

The Web site, sfa.kent.edu, also has information about a variety of federal programs implemented this year. These programs are geared toward specific types of students: math and technology undergrads and students with children. Although they won’t affect a broad range of students, Evans said, this trend in federal assistance is important to note.

“It’s a step in the right direction,” Dubick added. She said these attempts will work well when coupled with The Ohio College Opportunity Grant, which started in July. The OCOG doubled the expenditure in state grants and will reach an additional 11,000 students each year, according to former Ohio Gov. Bob Taft.

However, it will take five years to phase in that new system.

A current, average Kent State graduate with a four-year degree would have paid almost $100,000 in total college costs. The National Center for Education Statistics reported that in 2003 to 2004, more than 60 percent of undergraduates at four-year colleges took out loans, and the average loan debt upon graduation in 2004 had increased by $9,750 since 1993.

The time it takes to pay off student loans is dependent on a student’s individual status and history, but almost every graduate could pay it off in a maximum of 10 years, Evans said. There are several types of repayment plans determined by factors such as amount loaned and income.

The reimbursement time, Evans said, is worth the reward of a degree.

“At the end of the day, the value of higher education is more important,” he said. “The individual can continue to have more potential annual income.”

The latest Board of Regents data show many Ohioans feel the same way. As of 2002, college enrollment and completion was up 50,000 in seven years.

As for Whitehair, she said she’ll just have to wait and see.

“It really just depends on what you’re going into,” she said, discouraged by the lack of need in Ohio for educators. “I think I’m going to substitute teach. It’s the only idea I have.”

University ultimatums

While the university is successfully creating ways to help educate students about keeping costs down, it also faces a battle of its own.

Tomorrow, read about how government decisions affect Kent State’s budget and tuition decisions, what sacrifices and cuts the university makes to keep tuition costs down while trying to stay competitive and what changes need to be made to the cost of higher education nationwide.

Contact administration reporter Jackie Mantey at [email protected].