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The Mass Media

The Mass Media

Low-Income Students Struggle To Pay College Costs

Recent squeezes on public higher education budgets are becoming financial headaches for low-income students.
JOAN FAIRMAN KANES
Recent squeezes on public higher education budgets are becoming financial headaches for low-income students.

AKRON, Ohio _ Gabrielle Barney is only in her third semester at the University of Akron and already has racked up a big debt_and not from credit cards.

She owes more than $5,000 in college loans.

“I don’t get any help from (biological) parents,” said 19-year-old Gabrielle, who spent her high school years in a foster home.

This spring, in an effort to save money, the 2001 Canton McKinley graduate moved to an apartment with a roommate. (She had been paying extra to live in the dorm during school breaks.)

“I don’t think I should get handouts,” said Gabrielle, who juggles a full load of classes with a job at a mall department store. “But I do think I deserve a little bit more,” said the education major, adding she is grateful for the financial aid she gets.

Low-income students have always struggled to piece together money for college. But for many students_including middle-income ones_the obstacles to getting a degree are increasingly financial rather than academic.

Tuition costs have soared in recent years as states across the nation have cut their share of higher education costs.

As state support erodes, students are having to pick up a bigger percentage of the cost. As recently as the late 1980s, students at Ohio’s public universities paid on average about 37 percent of the cost of their educations.

“Now it’s probably around 55 percent,” said Rich Petrick, vice chancellor for finance for the Ohio Board of Regents.

Meanwhile, grant aid for higher education _ money that does not need to be paid back _ is not keeping pace with tuition jumps.

The result: Tuition at the nation’s public colleges and universities represented an ever-larger share of most families’ income from 1980 to 2000 and students are being forced to borrow more, according to Losing Ground, a recently released report by the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education.

Researchers and education officials say the hardest hit are the poorest families.

In 1980, tuition (not counting loans and grants) at public four-year schools equaled 13 percent of income for low-income families, according to the Losing Ground study. By 2000, tuition equaled 25 percent.

“The 20-year trend is really alarming,” said Joni Finney, president of the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education in San Jose, Calif. “If history is any kind of predictor at all, we could be in for big trouble.

“As prices go up, more lower-income students will be discouraged about attending college,” she said.

Marlesa Roney, vice president for student affairs at the University of Akron, said that the economic health of the nation is at stake: Without a degree, there may be “no way to break out of a low-income situation, because you have to have a degree to get the better job and in some ways it becomes a vicious cycle.”

The middle class also is feeling the squeeze, Finney said, and without changes in student aid and tuition policies, families will be forced to continue to borrow record-high amounts.

Some students will prolong the time it takes to get their degrees because of the need to work, she said. And “the longer it takes, the less likely you are to finish.”

She cited studies that show students who work 15 hours or more are more likely to drop out than those who work less.

To repay the loans, Finney said, students may begin choosing career paths “based primarily on financial interests” and not choose vocations_such as education or social work or nursing – “where we really need talented and committed people.”

Lori Parker, 19, a 2001 Springfield High graduate who is studying education at Bowling Green State University, received some grants and small scholarships last year. But they fell far short of covering the roughly $15,000 annual cost, including room and board.

So the family borrowed, and now Lori Parker is worried about how to pay back a debt of about $10,000 (in student and parent loans) that is destined to grow.

Parker’s mother, Cathy, said the family will help to pay what it can, but it is “very middle class” and was not able to build a college fund for Lori.

“I’m afraid of debt,” said Lori Parker, who is baby-sitting and working as a lifeguard this summer. “I know people who are always struggling to pay bills.”

Her family had hoped not to have to borrow more than $20,000 for Lori’s college.

“Realistically, it probably will be more than that,” said Cathy Parker, who added that when it comes to the total cost she is “probably in a state of denial… the goal is to get her through. She (Lori) is responsible for the debt, although we will take care of what we’re able to take care of.”

Nationwide, a federal study found that about two-thirds of undergraduate students from families with less than $30,000 in annual income graduated in debt. Between 1992 and 2000, the median amount of federal loans rose from $9,008 to $15,402 _ a 71 percent increase. The numbers were not adjusted for inflation.

Middle-class families went even more in hock. The median amount borrowed by students from families making $50,000 to $69,000 soared from $6,237 to $16,748 over the same period_a 169 percent increase.

Akron’s Roney said the gap between what college costs and traditional financial aid (government grants and low-interest loans) appears to be widening.

A family of four with an income of $60,000 and one student in college would be eligible for a maximum of $5,825a year in federal loans and work study. But the cost of attending UA_tuition, room and board and miscellaneous expenses_is roughly $15,000.

Meredith Carey, 18, hopes to get a scholarship to bridge the gap between family income and college cost. She lives in a single-parent household (her mother is a nurse) and there aren’t savings for college.

“I would like to avoid loans, but I understand it’s almost impossible too” said the recent Firestone High graduate who plans to attend UA.

“I ask myself, `Do they want us for the workforce?’ A lot of people just can’t afford college and can’t become people that can give back to society,” said Carey, who is working this summer.

For some students, the solution is community colleges_which charge less than four-year schools. But even getting together the money for a two-year degree can be a challenge.

Tiffany Crossland, 18, bypassed four-year universities for Stark State College of Technology in Jackson Township, Ohio. Tuition _ $3,060 for two semesters _ is less than half that at Kent State.

Still, she is working about 40 hours a week this summer _ lifeguarding at Akron’s Jewish Community Center _ to save money for college and related expenses.

Her plan is to get a two-year nursing degree at Stark State and then get a nursing job to help pay for a four-year degree.

While she’s taking the less-expensive route, she still finds the costs and academic hurdles “a little overwhelming.”

She recalled sitting in a Stark State college office “taking deep breaths” as she learned of “what I have to do to get into the nursing program, the money I would have to pay, the parking pass, the books… .”

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(c) 2002, Akron Beacon Journal (Akron, Ohio).

Visit Akron Beacon Journal Online at http://www.ohio.com/.

Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.