$18,900 that is how much debt awaits the typical college undergraduate (National Student Loan Survey, Nellie Mae, 2002). In the last ten years, student debt has risen 66%, forcing students to attend their second, third, or fourth-choice school, or to forgo higher education altogether. Some students work multiple jobs just to pay tuition, not to mention basic living costs. Other students take out loans for tens of thousands of dollars, hoping that, somehow, they can pay them off after graduation with an entry-level job. A maximum credit hour course-load causes nervous breakdowns as is, but when funds are tight, students attempt to stretch their tuition dollar even further by applying to take more than the maximum load. What are the non-loan options, and why are these options failing our students? Let’s find out.
After loans, needy college students most often utilize federal financial aid to help pay for school, but governmental grants are light-years away from satisfying this need. Federal financial aid is based almost solely on one factor: the student’s parents’ income. This policy is too generalized to adequately distribute federal funds to needy students. Some wealthy parents choose not to support their children due to ideological or religious conflicts. Others use college tuition as blackmail, forcing the child to choose a certain profession or attend a specific school. Many parents simply believe they are not obligated to pay for anything once their kid hits eighteen. Others have large families (with the current price of tuition, large is defined as “more than one child”) and cannot spend twenty-thousand greenbacks on each son and daughter. We also must consider how the financial aid department defines “wealthy.” Since the government’s financial aid matrix ignores the effects of debt, it also disservices students whose parents seem wealthy based on their yearly income but are actually drowning in debt. Children with divorced parents also get the short end of the stick the federal financial aid department uses the income and assets of non-custodial parents when determining your “need.” That’s right, even if you haven’t seen dad for ten years, his income (which he’s happily spending on his new wife and kids) will count against you, as observed in a study indicating that only 29 percent of children with divorced parents received parental support, compared to 88 percent of children from intact marriages. (Judith S. Wallerstein and Julia M. Lewis, “The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce: A 25 Year Landmark Study,” Hyperion Press, 2000). Details such as these add to the growing student debt burden as more and more students fall through the cracks in the financial aid grid, even the most industrious young people are forced to borrow thousands of dollars just to get a degree.
Think excellent performance in high school guarantees a full-tuition scholarship? Think again. With rare exception, universities have discontinued full-tuition academic and merit scholarships. A high school graduate with a 4.0 GPA and scoring in the 99th percentile on the ACT or SAT may receive, at most, half-tuition for his exceptional academic performance. The promise of an inclusive scholarship is no longer extended to anyone except those who fit the government’s narrow definition of financially challenged, forcing bright and talented students to choose between college and an overwhelming amount of debt upon graduation.
Off-campus student jobs fail to significantly alleviate the student debt burden because they do not accommodate a struggling student’s schedule and transportation needs. A financially struggling student generally lives on-campus or very close to campus because he cannot afford a car; this limits his job selection to the few businesses within walking distance of campus. Because of his financial obligations, our struggling student also takes as many credits as possible to maximize every penny spent on tuition. Most likely, he has several classes every day with small chunks of time in between classes, making it impossible to work a full day (or even a four-hour block). The struggling student must then compete with hundreds of his peers particularly comparatively wealthy students with lighter course loads who want a little cash on the side for a very small handful of jobs. When the employer is given a choice between a student who can work only two or three hours every day, and a student who can work two days a week from nine-to-five, chances are he will choose the latter and leave the cash-strapped student to fend for himself.
On-campus jobs could theoretically lighten student debt, if not for the reappearance of that wonderfully flawed financial aid matrix. Many colleges restrict whom they hire based on FAFSA data only employing students who qualify for financial aid. You absolutely cannot get paid to clean toilets even if the night janitor slot has been open for months if your parents’ income exceeds a certain amount. The school will even hire a non-student to fill an empty job slot rather than hire a student who does not qualify for federal financial aid. This type of employment regulation takes another blow at students already brushed aside by the financial aid department. When a student cannot even work for his tuition, loans may be the only choice left to him.
And, of course, we come to the combined problem of on and off-campus jobs: minimum wage. A minimum wage is generally not a living wage, especially in a college town. Housing costs skyrocket when you are in the vicinity of a university campus. Even grocery prices inflate; in my own college town, the price of groceries is roughly 50% higher in a store near campus than in a store of the same franchise five miles away. And any university that imposes housing standards pushes living expenses even higher, as complexes decide they can charge even more since they are especially “university approved.” And so we run a circular gamut: minimum wage is far from satisfactory, but you need a degree to make beyond minimum wage, but you cannot support yourself while getting said degree because you work at minimum wage. This throws the “work to get yourself through college” idea out of the water at even the cheapest universities.
The high price of a degree even at a poorly rated junior college can negatively influence a student’s chosen field of study. A student who is barely making ends meet in college is more likely to choose a “reliably lucrative” career than, say, a career in public service. Whether he would be a better drug counselor or an accountant is no longer the question accountants make more, end of story. The financially challenged student quickly learns that college is not about becoming a well-rounded educated individual, or developing talents in your most promising areas; college is about getting accepted into any school that guarantees you can pay off your student loans in four years. If college were actually affordable, public service and accounting majors alike could manage the graduation debt burden; as is, college expenses decrease qualified applicants in less profitable but just as necessary fields of study. Those who still choose to pursue careers in the less lucrative fields may spend two or three times as long trying to pay back their initial student loans.
Ironically, those who choose to pursue jobs that require additional graduate study are in the same predicament as their non-lucrative undergraduate counterparts, as they end their formal education with a wall of debt looming over them $91,700 on average (National Student Loan Survey, Nellie Mae, 2002). This staggering number marks a 57% increase in the last decade in debt incurred for graduate studies. The price of a graduate degree, which few parents and far fewer independent high school graduates can afford, discourages students from attempting graduate school at all. Those who do pursue graduate studies may still be chipping away at student loans many years down the road, even as they simultaneously juggle the financial needs of marriage and family.
A student’s emotional stability is an important aspect of the college experience, and financial troubles greatly affect that stability. Unaffordable college tuition pushes students to work multiple jobs, live in cheaper housing far away from campus, and overload their school schedule; these measures all significantly cut into or eliminate entirely social interactions that every human being needs to be emotionally functional. Rising educational costs mean no dinners out with friends, no dates, and certainly no flight home for the holidays. Depression and anxiety rates are skyrocketing among today’s teens and twentysomethings is it any wonder when students have more classes than extracurricular interests, and more employers than friends? After living a year or two as friendless, emotional wrecks, many students drop out of school altogether, or take out extensive loans so they can work one job instead of four. The result? Decreased college access, and once again, more student debt.
What can we do about this predicament? Reform governmental financial aid to reach more students more effectively; press institutions to spend more on in-house academic scholarships and less on faculty perks and campus luxuries; create a way for independent students to obtain aid without factoring in the income of parents who cannot support them; and eliminate hiring regulations on college campuses. Through persistent action motivated by defined goals, we can make education more affordable across the board.