Sunday, December 21, 2014
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Rising cost of college requires more work, more debt

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Nichelle Bottko worked four jobs for a short while to pay for college. Now she's taking a light schedule to catch up financially. (MPR Photo/Art Hughes)
The rising cost for a college education has students working more and building up more debt. Earning money for classes also often requires students to take time off from school to earn money to pay tuition and other costs. While governments and institutions are shifting more money to financial aid, it's not enough to offset significant increases in what students and their families are expected to pay for a degree.

St. Paul, Minn. — Nichelle Bottko is by all accounts a motivated and accomplished student. She graduated three years ago with highest honors from Champlin Park High School. She gets good grades at St. Paul College where she's working toward a sign language interpreter certificate. But Bottko is taking only three class credits this semester.

"I don't have the money to do everything I had to do and pay for classes also," Bottko said.

Last spring Bottko sustained a full class schedule while juggling part time jobs to try and keep up financially.

"I work a lot. A lot, a lot," Bottko said. "I was working four jobs and going to two schools. Currently I work 20 hours a week at one job. And at the other at least 30 hours."

Paying for her education has required Bottko to take a significant detour from the path she first mapped out in high school.

"I thought I would go on to get my education degree right away," she said. "But a four year degree is much, much more expensive. So I made the decision to get a two year degree that help me pay for it all. This is sort of like a little side track but in the end I think it will help. I hope."

Bottko's family makes too much money to receive any kind of student aid other than loans, but too little to build any kind of significant savings.

A survey released this year by the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system found a full three-quarters of students say their parents don't help them with the cost of their education. Still, parents are often left wondering what else they can do.

"Economically unless you're upper middle class...the rest of us are going to have our kids in our basements," said Rochelle Wolf, whose daughter is in her third year of classes at St. Cloud State University.

Wolf moved her family closer to campus so her daughter could save on living and transportation costs.

Wolf is a clerical support staffer at the St. Cloud Workforce Center. Her husband is a Sauk Rapids elementary school teacher. Together they make about $60,000 a year. They qualified for no state or federal grants. Wolf wonders whether she planned poorly or if government policy decisions are increasingly limiting students' options.

"My husband and I talk about it from time to time (and we wonder) what could be different," Wolf said. "Part of our taxes goes to these state colleges--and they're making it more and more and more expensive so middle class people are essentially forced out. You do get resentful of that. Do we need a stadium? No. I need a college education for my children."

In the time since Wolf herself was in college, financial aid has shifted from need-based grants to student loans. The U.S. Department of Education reduced state and federal grants this year for nearly half of the state's 80,000 aid recipients. Congress is now considering an increase in the student loan interest rate as a means to trim some $14 billion from the federal budget. Added to this are tuition hikes.

Minnesota always compares favorably to other states in terms of higher education funding, but there's no doubt a gap is widening. Between 1995 and 2003 per capita income in Minnesota rose 43 percent, according to figures from the U.S. Commerce Department. In that same time tuition at the University of Minnesota shot up 75 percent. The MnSCU system posts similar figures.

For at least the past five years dwindling public money is a key reason for the increase. Susan Heegaard, director of the Minnesota Higher Education Office, said she's concerned about the rising cost of tuition. But she's also concerned about what taxpayers are getting for their money. Heegaard questions whether the significant building and maintenance costs for the state-funded systems are drawing down their ability to deliver an education.

"We have some really great public institutions in our state," Heegaard said. "If you look at the trends and the changing demographics we have to ask ourselves, are we overbuilt? Are there some difficult decisions we might have to take a look at in the future? Those are very difficult politically, but for the good of the state are there some decisions we have to make in the future?"

Among those difficult decisions, Heegaard said, is whether or not to close some under-used campuses. That is a long term discussion, however, and not something being considered for the near future, she said.

At the same time Heegaard the state's institutions report high, if not record enrollment numbers despite the rising costs.

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