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Students struggle to keep up with the rising cost of college

Last year, Julie Pridham '10 took out an outside loan to cover the $41,700 cost of attending Brown. For economic reasons, Pridham had to ask her parents to sign as co-borrowers on the loan, but she felt uncomfortable with the decision. As a first-generation college student on financial aid, Pridham wanted to pay for her own education.

Pridham doesn't take issue with rising tuition costs. She says it's understandable and that as Brown's fees increase, so do its financial aid awards. "They will help you to figure out something," she said. "But the school can only do so much. I think just the general economic situation has really made it more difficult to get by on my own."

Looking to pay off her debt, Pridham is mindful of accumulating loans as she considers a post-graduation path. She is interested in grad school, but a program like AmeriCorps would help her pay off her loans.

"For the most part, I figure I'll be young, so I can work two jobs if I need to and still go to school," she said.

Pridham's situation is becoming increasingly common as tuition fees rise nationally and students struggle to keep up. A decade ago, only 6 percent of loans used to fund higher education were private, with most funds coming from federal loans and college grants. But last year, nearly 24 percent of total education loans were private, as students' financial aid packages are increasingly falling short of their needs.

This past year the costs of attending college have risen at a rate more than double that of inflation. According to a College Board report released last month, tuition and fees in the 2007-2008 academic year for private, four-year, nonprofit institutions averaged a 6.3 percent increase from the previous year, while average total fees (which include room and board) rose 5.9 percent higher than last year.

The average total cost of attending a public institution of higher education rose by the same percentage as private universities' fees, but tuition increases were slightly higher at public schools.

But only a fraction of students can afford to pay full tuition. The College Board reported that in 2006-2007, three-quarters of full-time undergraduates received some form of financial aid. Financial aid to undergrads nationally totalled $97.1 billion last year, with 40 percent coming from federal loans and 21 percent from college and university grants.

At Brown, where tuition has risen roughly 5 percent each year, the need-based financial aid budget increased 9.4 percent between the 2006-2007 and 2007-2008 academic years, from $52 million last year to $56.9 million this year, according to Director of Financial Aid James Tilton.

Elizabeth Huidekoper, executive vice president for finance and administration, said tuition costs are outpacing inflation because, with the explosion of knowledge and information, staying current and competitive in teaching and research is increasingly expensive.

"The (fact that costs have) increased slightly more than inflation is pretty much the history of higher education," Huidekoper said. The University's priorities, she said, are reflected in an emphasis on investing in faculty growth and need-blind admission.

Among other goals, Huidekoper expects that with the Plan for Academic Enrichment, Brown will become less dependent on tuition and more dependent on endowment income. The Plan for Academic Enrichment, a comprehensive blueprint for strengthening Brown's academic profile, will largely be supported by the five-year, $1.4 billion capital campaign launched in 2005. To date, the campaign has raised over $1 billion.

If the campaign is successful, it will boost the University's endowment, which has historically been smaller than those of its peers. The relatively small endowment has forced the University to rely more on tuition to finance its operations, Huidekoper said.

In comparison to peer institutions, Huidekoper said, Brown ranks very low in terms of endowment per student. Princeton University, according to last year's numbers, had close to $2 million in endowment per student, while Brown's endowment per student in 2006 was close to $300,000.

The financial aid policy at Princeton eliminated parental contribution for families making less than $53,500 a year and replaced student loans with grants. 15 percent of Princeton's class of 2011 come from families with incomes under this amount. Yale and Stanford universities set their qualifying income level for complete financial aid at $45,000, and Harvard University sets the cap at $60,000.

Despite the University's broad slate of priorities, Tilton said financial aid is high on the list. "I think we're very aware of the impact of tuition increases" he said. "As tuition increases, so will then the financial aid budget."

Jim Miller '73, dean of admission, wrote in an e-mail to The Herald that Brown has been committed to making education accessible regardless of socioeconomic backgrounds since adopting a need-blind admission policy in 2002.

"The lass of 2011 has the highest percentage of students receiving aid, the highest percentage of students of color and perhaps the highest percentage of students who are the first in their families to go to college in Brown's history," Miller wrote.

But need-blind admission do not apply to every student at Brown. International students, Resumed Undergraduate Education and transfer students are all subject to "need-aware" policies.

Thirty-eight-year-old Scott Ewing '09 applied to Brown as a RUE student in 2003. He had completed two years at Indiana University before joining a band in the early 1990s and spent about a decade working in various capacities.

But one year into his time at Brown, Ewing ran out of funds. In the summer of 2004, he decided to enlist in the Army.

Ewing joined a month before he turned 35, the cutoff age for enlisting. He started training in September 2004 and left for Iraq at the end of March 2005. Ewing served in Iraq for about a year and finished his military service in September.

Duty in Iraq may be an unusual way to pay off loans, but Ewing said for him, the decision was clear. "I'm not 18 or 19, so going to my parents for help was not something I really wanted to do, and I'm not independently wealthy," he said. "I didn't have the resources to take out private loans."

In the summer of 2004, the Army was offering high sign-up bonuses, and Ewing enlisted as a calvary scout, a combat position. The army offered Ewing a student loan repayment program, which would pay up to $65,000 in loans. When he enlisted, Ewing had $46,000 in loans.

Now that his debts have been paid, Ewing is facing payment for another two semesters' worth of tuition. "I've had to ask myself at times if it's worth it. I've had other people ask that question as well. And I'm not sure what the answer is," Ewing said. "I literally risked my life for this."

Ewing has two more semesters at Brown before he can receive a degree, and he plans on resuming his study here in the spring. He is worried about whether he might have to discontinue his studies before his anticipated graduation in May 2009.

Though she's nearly 20 years younger than Ewing, Courtney Byrne-Mitchell '09 is also paying for her own education. Due to extenuating personal circumstances, Byrne-Mitchell said she has technically been "financially abandoned" by her family. Brown considers her to be financially independent from her family.

Tilton said cases of independent students are relatively rare - 99 percent of undergraduate students are considered dependent on family members. Byrne-Mitchell said her experience has kept her very aware of her own financial aid package.

Byrne-Mitchell is a Sidney Frank Scholar, part of an aid program for the neediest students that was created by a $100-million gift from the late liquor magnate Sidney Frank '42, the largest single gift in Brown's history. First offered in 2005, the scholarships replace the loan portion of a student's financial aid package with grants. In the program's inaugural year, 2005-2006, 60 first-years received the scholarship.

Byrne-Mitchell's scholarship covered her full freshman year costs and even left her with money left over. That has changed over the years. Her sophomore year, Byrne-Mitchell needed $3,000 to make up the gap between her scholarship and the cost of her education. Now, she thinks she will graduate with $12,000 to $15,000 in loans.

Still, Byrne-Mitchell's estimated debt is slightly lower than what Tilton estimates are average loan debts for undergraduates after four years.

"In general, everyone's concerned about borrowing," Tilton said. "The average student in 2007 graduated with approximately $17,000 worth in loans, and based on repayment schedules, I think the repayment is about $155 a month."

Repayment of her loan debt worries Byrne-Mitchell, who must pay off her loans as well as fully support herself. She will consider these factors as she explores potential career paths and relocating after graduation. "I don't have parents that I can just fall back on for the money," she said.

"I would love to go travel for a while, but I can't," Byrne-Mitchell said. "I'm going to definitely have to get a job that's going to provide me with money to support myself."

While individual students struggle with financing their education, campus advocacy group Students for a Democratic Society has tried to spark a campus-wide discussion advocating for fewer student loans in financial aid packages to reduce student debt.

Last spring, SDS proposed a temporary tuition freeze for the current 2007-2008 academic year and created a long-term goal to shift from financial aid loans to grants. Neither of these proposals met with success.

"The importance of it is obvious - everyone has a right to education," said SDS member Molly McLaughlin '10. "You hear people complaining about their financial aid and how expensive it is. It definitely seems like a reasonable campaign."

When asked about the possibility of a tuition freeze at Brown, Huidekoper said the University could not feasibly do that at this point.

"If we were to freeze tuition with the resources we have, the quality of the education, the quality of the faculty, the quality of the financial aid, the quality of the graduate students ... (and) the quality of facilities would suffer," Huidekoper said. "Within not too long a period of time, you would see Brown not being a viable institution."

The increasing cost of a Brown education brings up other issues that may not be part of the campus conversation, Byrne-Mitchell said.

"I feel like socioeconomic issues are kind of looked over, and a lot of things like sexuality is looked at a lot, or gender is looked at a lot; race is looked at a lot," she said. Her differing socioeconomic background isn't an external, material difference, but it's significant, she said.

"I didn't go to a prep school, so maybe academically my background isn't as strong, and I just haven't had the same traveling or life experiences," Byrne-Mitchell said. "The community I come from is not an intellectual community. The common goal of my high school was 'okay, graduate and get a job' versus graduate and go to college."

Pridham also pointed out that increases in tuition costs don't always affect only students who come from poorer families.

"There are certainly students whose parents fall into that certain bracket which is above the financial aid target, but it's still a struggle for their families to pay," Pridham said. "I definitely still consider myself fortunate to be on financial aid and to have the opportunity not to have to carry full loans for my academic career."

But the cost of college education isn't just tuition. The living expense can also cause a student to take out loans, explained Shane Reil '09, another Sidney Frank Scholar and Herald sports columnist.

"When determining the cost of attendance for a student's financial aid budget, we know what tuition and fees are, we try to estimate what books will cost the average student, we try to determine if we have enough money in the budget for miscellaneous expenses," Tilton said. "We've learned a lot from our conversations with students in the last year and have a better understanding of the kinds of challenges students face when arriving on campus."

Reil said because of his scholarship, rising costs don't concern him very much. It is additional costs - buying books, going out to dinner, buying a new pair of sneakers he needed - that have forced him to take out some loans to cover his costs.

Reil acknowledges that his circumstances may be a special case and that rising tuition costs often affect a larger, middle-class group of students.

"I think that rising tuition affects the middle class a lot more than it affects the lower class, at least from my experience," Reil said. "I don't really notice the rise in tuition, and I feel that some of my friends who are middle class, when tuition goes up, it's bigger chunk coming out of their pocket."


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