Every year thousands of Utahns wonder how they’re going to pay for college. Whether they’re high school seniors, returning members of the military or single moms and dads looking for a new opportunity, the financial obligations that come with a college degree are usually the biggest obstacle. KUER explores the unique struggles of Utah students to overcome the escalating cost of college. It’s part of our look this week at The Future of Higher Education.
It’s 8pm on a Wednesday and a group of about 20 parents and high school students are shuffling in and out of the East High School library in Salt Lake City. They’re pouring over the tax documents and other information they need to complete the free online application for Federal Student Aid or FAFSA. It’s the gateway for determining eligibility for federal and state financial aid programs like grants, loans and work study opportunities.
Next fall high School Senior Helen Maldonado will be the first in her family to go to college. She plans to complete her general education requirements at Salt Lake Community College and then go to the University of Utah to study nursing or radiology. Maldonado is completing documents with her father Jose.
“It would be nice if I got a full ride to the U but I’ll have to look into more scholarships for that,” Maldonado says.
Once Maldonado completes her FAFSA she’ll have an idea of how much Federal aid she’ll be awarded, as well as how much money her family will have to pay out of pocket.
“I do not want her to be bound for life on a debt," Jose says.
He says he hopes his daughter will not need student loans.
“I’m going to try all my means to be free of debt and have a good life," he says.
But if Helen does accept loans, he says he’ll help her pay for them when she graduates.
“We have a different culture. She’s my responsibility until she leaves the house," he says. "She could be 25, 30, but that’s the way it is.”
Steve Rogers, with the Utah Higher Education Assistance Authority, helps organize the free FAFSA nights. He says part of his job includes getting students who accept loans to consider their return on investment, to borrow wisely and exhaust all options before borrowing at all.
“We want to be very, very judicious," Rogers says. "And try and help people understand ‘What are your interests?’, ‘what are you going into?’, ‘How is that going to compensate you when you’re done with school?’ ”
But the reality is most students will accept loans to pay for their college education.
Andrew Reeve is in a graduate program called MIAGE at the University of Utah. It’s a mix of international affairs, economics, business and law. He’s approaching 60,000 in student debt.
“I tell most people that I don’t want to break 100 thousand in debt, but I will if I have to because I’m educating myself," Reeve says. "I’m investing all of this money into myself. Someday hopefully it will pay for itself.”
Reeve says he didn’t qualify for much financial aid and the scholarships he received dried up quickly.
But he says he has more sympathy for his roommate who studies music.
“I see him doing everything to get as far as he can," Reeve says. "But there’s no money in music. There’s no money in art anymore.”
Reeve says there are fewer financial opportunities available for people who aren’t in engineering or medicine.
“But I keep spending and I keep taking out more and more loans just to get me through and I hate it," Reeve says. " I really do.”
Joseph Richards didn’t go to college in Utah, but he’s facing a dilemma that’s common for graduates. He accumulated most of his debt while completing his Master’s degree in Colorado. He’s now gainfully employed as the manager of a hiring firm in Murray but he still can’t make regular payments on his $40,000 debt. Richards says he didn’t consider the other debts he would amass after graduation.
“I was unemployed for about five months and obviously I’m not making money during that time, Richards says. "And I still have credit cards due. So its credit cards, coupled with living expenses in general in D.C. for a year and a half.”
Richards anticipated like many other college graduates that a graduate degree would provide him the income to tackle the debt. But it didn’t.
“I feel like I’m at the point right now where I’ve come to terms with the fact that I will have student loans, probably for the next 20 years or so," he says.
According to a national report by the Institute for College Access and Success, two thirds of college seniors who graduated in 2011 had an average of about $26,000 in student loan debt. That’s up 5 percent from the previous year.
Utah performed best on the list with an average debt of $17,000.
But the out-of-pocket cost for students in the state is still on the rise.
A decade ago in-state tuition at the University of Utah was about $2500 a year. Today a Utah resident will pay closer to $6,000 per year.
Utah public colleges and universities are funded by a combination of state tax dollars and tuition. In 2008 the ratio was about 63 percent tax funds and 37 percent tuition. Today it’s 50/50, meaning students are paying more out of pocket than in previous years to make up for the state’s dwindling contribution.
Dave Buhler is Utah’s Higher Education Commissioner.
“The big change is of course we had some budget cuts during the recession," Buhler says. At the same time between 2008 and 2012 we added 16,000 new students. That’s the size of Utah State in Logan.
In the wake of cuts, Buhler says Utah colleges and Universities are spending about $600 less per student than they were in 2008. He says that’s an indication schools are operating more efficiently.
“It also shows we haven’t used tuition to totally backfill the budget cuts that we had during those days,” he says.
Buhler says Higher education officials are not bracing for cuts this year but a tuition increase is expected. How large it will be depends on the budget state lawmakers pass at the end of the legislative session. Last year the State Board of Regents Approved a 4.5 percent increase, the largest since 2002. Buhler believes this year’s increase won’t be as significant.
**CORRECTION: A previous version of this story stated that tuition at the University of Utah had increased from $2,000 to $6,000 per semester. That rate reflects tuition rates per year, not per semester.