By Jane Nicholson
The headlines stir anxiety on an almost weekly basis: “Sticker Shock,” “College affordability is a struggle as state aid drops, tuition rises” and “Students battle college costs, one paycheck at a time.”
There is no doubt the cost of earning a college degree can be daunting for students and their families. Tuition, fees, room and board, book rental fees and incidentals quickly add up.
The cost of a degree from Appalachian State University was $12,428 for an in-state, on-campus student enrolled in the 2012-13 academic year, up 21.24 percent from the 2008-09 academic year when the cost was $10,251.
But tuition and fees don’t always reflect what many students actually pay to attend a university. Consider this: nationally, 54 percent of college students borrow from a federal loan program to attend college. At Appalachian, about 51 percent of all students borrow money to earn their degree. The average net price of an undergraduate education for those borrowers was $8,710 in 2011-12. That year, more than $45.5 million in loans were awarded to 7,520 Appalachian undergraduates.
That’s according to data available through the College Affordability and Transparency Center’s College Scorecard, a tool created in February by the U.S. Department of Education to help students and parents determine the actual cost of attending any university.
But with or without financial aid, paying for college requires creativity, sacrifice and determination for many. This is the tale of two university students and the different paths that brought them to Appalachian.
Like many prospective college students, Eric Barnes, a first-generation college student, worried about being able to afford college. Because of family circumstances, the senior management major concentrating in entrepreneurship qualifies for maximum financial aid.
“After a long look at prices, Appalachian was a little more affordable,” said Barnes who transferred from UNC Asheville after his first year. “I wanted to apply to bigger schools, but I knew because of cost that wouldn’t be a good decision.”
Each year while at Appalachian, Barnes has submitted the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, a tool used to determine a family’s ability to pay for college. FAFSA is managed by the U.S. Department of Education. In addition to financial aid, Barnes also has received leadership scholarships, works 20 hours a week during the school year in the Center for Student Involvement and Leadership on campus and has worked full time in the summer. He has taken out a few loans to cover his college costs. Barnes also received a stipend for being vice president of the Student Government Associationin 2012-13.
He estimates when he graduates in December, his federal student loans will total no more than $10,000, thanks to careful planning.
“I probably couldn’t go to college if it wasn’t for financial aid,” Barnes said. He adheres to a strict budget to make the most of the funds he receives. “I have learned a lot about budgeting while in college,” he said.
One might think with his schedule, Barnes has little time for anything other than academics and his part-time work during the semester. Think again. Barnes is president of Higher Ground, an all-male a cappella group, a Walker Fellow student ambassador in the Walker College of Business, a member of Omicron Delta Kappa leadership society, was on the student Division IA feasibility committee, and has been involved in the university’s Red Flag Campaign against sexual assault and interpersonal violence.
This summer, Barnes had a paid internship in sales with the Hershey Company in Charlotte, which he hopes will lead to a full-time position when he graduates.
While Barnes will graduate with what most consider a manageable loan to repay, student debt totals are “trending up,” according to Esther Manogin, director of financial aid at Appalachian. “But we don’t think at an alarming rate. Our average indebtedness is still very respectable,” she said.
At 3 percent, Appalachian has one of the lowest student loan default rates in the UNC system. The national default rate is 13.4 percent. Students at Appalachian typically borrow $18,274 in federal loans for their undergraduate studies, according to the 2011-12 College Scorecard, the most current data available from the U.S. Department of Education’s website. By paying an average $210 a month, the typical existing student loan can be repaid in 10 years. “That’s manageable. If that’s the only way you can obtain your education, then it’s a bargain, it’s an investment in yourself,” Manogin said.
Although she doesn’t qualify for financial aid, Cameron Carswell is an advocate for those who do.
“While our family income waxes and wanes with the economic times, we definitely are in the middle class,” she said. “I’m right at the cut off for federal aid through FAFSA.” A senior psychology major and criminal justice minor, Carswell is the daughter of teachers and has a stepfather who owns his own business. She’s lucky that they were able to set aside savings for her and her 17-year-old brother’s college education when they were young. “It was an investment, just like their investment for retirement,” she said.
As former president of the Association of Student Governments, which represents all students in the UNC System, Carswell has stood toe-to-toe with members of the UNC Board of Governors, lobbyists and elected officials, including the governor to advocate for affordable tuition and fewer cuts to the UNC System budget.
“The more cuts we receive, the more exclusive education becomes,” she told N.C. Gov. Pat McCrory during the April meeting of the UNC Board of Governors. “By decreasing the accessibility to higher education (through higher tuition), you’re decreasing diversity and ensuring a lower quality of student body, because you are admitting the students who can pay first, rather than students who may be more qualified but can’t afford college.”
Back home at Appalachian, Carswell observes a cultural experience occurring when students of different socioeconomic statuses work together. “We have so much to teach each other. Even though I receive no portion of financial aid, I have been affected by my friends and my peers who I work with who do receive financial aid,” she said. Those interactions have taught her about leadership, being a strong, independent woman and standing up for the student body, even when administrators and others see things from a different perspective, she explained.
“Students who require financial aid or scholarships to attend college contribute to education and the quality of learning because they completely change and shift the dynamics of the environment in the classroom, have a rigor about their school work and don’t take their college experience for granted,” Carswell said.
“The college learning experience and what you sit down and learn in a lecture is probably 40 percent of what really affects you and helps you grow into a functioning member of society,” she said. “There are so many other factors that cultivate you into the individual you are once you pursue your career after college.”
With three grown children who each graduated from college, Manogin easily can put herself in parents’ and students’ shoes when it comes to developing a strategy to pay for college.
“The best way to control college costs is to get that degree in four years and get out. I guess that sounds crass, but it’s really not,” she said. “Part of the purpose of going to college is to matriculate and get a degree. While you are doing that there are other experiences that are very positive in terms of making a person a well-rounded individual. But the bottom line is to earn a degree, graduate and get a good job.”
Manogin also said that even if a student has to borrow money to earn a college degree, it’s well worth it, and “there is no shame in sitting out a semester and working, and working every summer to save as much as you can, if that is your only path forward.”
Barnes agrees. “Getting a college degree means you will have a better opportunity than people who don’t, have a better resume than people who don’t go to college, and if you can get a good job after graduating from college, then it’s worth it, even if you are in debt,” he said. “You will have hard times budgeting, but you’ll grow up from that (experience). Don’t let money be an issue when it comes to having a better education. As long as I can get a job and establish myself, it’s worth it in the end.”
"Tuition and fees don’t always reflect what many students actually pay.
It’s an investment in yourself.”
- Esther Manogin, director of financial aid