Higher education has always been viewed as one avenue in order to obtain some sort of financial independence and economic stability. Throughout our lives at a young age we are frequently bombarded with statistics that visualize to us that a college education can help us obtain more financially compared to those whose level of education ends at the high school level. With discussions, seminars, workshops, lectures, government and state officials equating a college degree to more income it is no wonder that more and more individuals are seeking higher education during these difficult economic times. Those seeking higher education options have many choices to choose from. Community colleges, four-year public institutions, private institutions, and for profit institutions are just some of the many options that exist. Often there is a huge amount of time, dedication, discipline, and financial commitment that is required for those seeking higher education.
Pursuing higher education might have many factual benefits as supported by statistics, and there can also seem to be some perceived benefits that might not be so factual. In making the decision to pursue higher education students will often make a commitment to a timely endeavor that has the potential to impact their future for better-or worse for a long period of time. With the cost of tuition climbing at a fast rate students are often faced with the challenge of financing their education. With that challenge comes many options students can explore to help finance their education such as grants, loans, scholarships, and work-study opportunities. This research article explores the rising cost of tuition along with student loan debt and the perceived benefits of higher education by first-generation college students.
Review of Literature
The current state of the economy in the United States of America has been difficult for all. During a time of recession individuals are often forced to reevaluate their spending, living, and daily habits. With the recession individuals are forced to evaluate their current set of job skills in order to be more competitive in a world where there are fewer job opportunities available. A recent survey by the nonprofit Qvisory found that roughly 1 in 5 young adults between the ages of 18 and 29 is unemployed (Palmer, 2009).
Education has often been viewed as paramount for financial success and instrumental for individuals to experience job success. With the economy being the worse that it has been in decades many individuals are looking for ways to better themselves and they are turning to higher education. Some turn to their local community colleges and four year public institutions, while some turn to four year private and for profit institutions. Each route has its advantages and disadvantages depending on the individuals’ personal situation, and there is no doubt that pursuing higher education will cost them.
If the recession affects common working people and non-working people, students are also directly affected by economic conditions. Some might debate students are actually affected worse during an economic downturn due to the fact they are in school often financing their education through student loans and work that allows them a modest stream of income, if they are fortunate. Some outsiders and individuals might comment that the recession globally and in the United States of America is due to outrageous spending and “living beyond our means” individually, and as a society. Berg-Cross and Green (2010) mention, “Today’s college students grew up in a gilded age of consumption characterized by yearly replacements of their technological toys of necessity (such as computers, iPods, and cell phones), a restaurant-based diet that necessitated lattes from Starbucks and cake from the Cheesecake Factory, and a belief that a college degree would allow them to continually expand their material satisfactions” (p. 2). Although higher education is a valuable tool to some sort of possible financial independence, the depiction of “college life” is often exaggerated by the media and social media outlets and made to seem like a huge party day and night without any worries. Berg-Cross and Green (2010) point out, “over the past 25 years, college and university life has been characterized by an increasing consumerism epitomized by designer dorm rooms, laundry delivery, and summer storage services, designer clothes, quality alcohol, private automobiles, and Club Med resort level
workout facilities” (p.2).
The troubling part of this equation is that while students take longer in the higher education setting they can often find their financial situation deteriorating due to spending habits many financial experts would questions. Before the official recession began in December 2007, most students were already stewing in a version of their own recession. The average credit card balance held by a college student was over $2,000 in 2007 (Berg-Cross and Green, 2010, p.2). This could be for a variety of reasons as some students during their college years seem to heavily rely on their credit card in order to meet some of what they deem are “basic needs.”
For college students, the economic impacts of the recession are wide ranging and often severe. They include the immediate challenge of financing their education, the narrowing of career options, and the deterioration of future earnings streams associated with graduating into a recession which makes for a very difficult scenario once students graduate (Berg-Cross and Green, 2010). Given the fact that in a recent article in U.S. News & World Report titled “Generation Y’s Great Expectations,” the author Kimberly Palmer (2009) notes that “these days, 20-somethings are not just struggling to pay off student loan debt and coping with rising health insurance costs. They're also fighting to hang on to their jobs” (Palmer, 2009). These days it seems like we are all “fighting” for our jobs, not just those fresh out of the college setting, but those who have been in the workforce for quite some time.
Despite the fact a college education might not necessarily equate to career and financial success individuals often decide to pursue higher education for financial reasons and the possibility of positioning themselves to do better economically in the long run. DeBard (2000) cites information from the National Center for Education Statistics, “financial benefits to be accrued from a college education have never been greater. In 1996, a male with a bachelor’s degree or higher earned 54 percent more than males who had a high school diploma, whereas women earned 88 percent more than their high school educated counterparts” (p.48). With the potential possibility to increase ones economic situation it is no wonder that more and more students are turning to higher education to help them for employment.
The cost of higher education can often be a costly endeavor. Individuals who decide to pursue higher education must become familiar with the costs and related fees that will be associated with pursuing higher education. The price of higher education tuition can make most people cringe. Individuals often lack information and the resources needed to make informed decisions when it comes to financing their education. As Manton and English (2002) note, “with the cost of education continuing to rise at a rapid rate, it is more important than ever to look at loan options, loan sources, and the long run repercussions faced by students seeking an education in today's society” (p. 82).
With the reality of pursuing higher education comes the possibility that one might need to obtain student loans to help finance the cost of their education. Potential students must be willing to accept the fact that if they plan to pursue higher education they will more than likely find themselves in debt. This could mean that a student might find themselves working towards paying of their student loan for the next 10, 15, 20 or more years following graduation, or even after a grace period if the student does not graduate. As Berg-Cross and Green (2010) note, “in the 1960s and 1970s, there was a general sense that graduates would always find a good job and postgraduate debt loads seemed modest. Hence, there was much more exploration and experimentation, both encouraged by families and institutions and embraced by a generation of students” (p.7). It can be said that student choice is much more limited now, given the fact that students will face higher debt levels than before (Berg-Cross and Green, 2010).
What is a student to do if they want to pursue higher education and do not have the means to finance their education? The answer is that students will usually seek assistance through the financial aid system that we currently have in place. Manton and English (2002) mention, “the government created a financial aid system to help disadvantaged students receive need-based financial assistance and also to provide assistance to middle class families through a guaranteed loan system” (p.82).
The students that often need the most help to achieve their college dreams are often students who are unaware of the challenges that face them as they work to navigate through the higher education and financial aid system. Often times these are the students who could benefit from a college education, but are not aware of the resources and lack the information to make sound decisions. First generation college students are often the first in their family to pursue higher education and as Billson and Terry (as cited in Bui, 2002) describe first-generation college students as those whose parents have not attended college. “First-generation college students tend to be at a distinct disadvantage with respect to basic knowledge about postsecondary education (e.g., costs and application process), level of family income and support, educational degree expectations and plans, and academic preparation in high school” (Pascarella, Pierson, Wolniak, & Terenzini, 2004, ¶ 1).These are often the students attending college in hopes of achieving some sort of economic stability as a result of their college education.
First generation college students are often unaware of what to expect during the college process. They come to the higher education setting with diverse backgrounds, different value systems, and their parents can lack the knowledge to support them in their endeavors. First generation college students can sometimes have expectations that are out of touch with the reality, which is why it is important to have a basic understanding of where these students are coming from.
According to Bui (2002), not much survey research has been done on the background characteristics of first-generation students at four-year universities. First-generation college students are likely to be ethnic minorities and come from low socioeconomic backgrounds (Bui, 2002). In addition, first-generation college students are more likely to speak a language other than English at home (Bui, 2002). They often struggle to understand the college culture and its role in personal development (Pascarella, Pierson, Wolniak, & Terenzini, 2004).
As if the application process for applying to can institution of higher education was not time consuming and confusing enough for students to navigate, shortly after students submit their college applications they will have to complete their Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). Every year students are able to apply for federal financial aid to help them attend the institution of higher education of their choice. The FAFSA form often requires very detailed financial information that takes a look at the entire families’ financial situation. The FAFSA is meant to help those who qualify for federal financial aid gain access to resources such as grants scholarships, loans, and work study options, but parents can often be skeptical of the application process and sometimes hesitant to provide the wealth of information that it takes to complete the FAFSA. Parent social security numbers, information in regards to annual income, assets, and info in regards to current bank accounts are all examples of some of the easier “surface level” information that the FAFSA gathers.
Once the FAFSA has gathered the necessary information it needs, it then makes the determination of what a student can be eligible for. To make matters more complicated what the federal government uses to determine eligibility might be different than what an institution uses to determine eligibility. This is called federal methodology and institutional methodology and both use different methods to determine student’s eligibility.
According to Baum (2004) ”Federal Methodology (FM), legislated by Congress during the 1992 Reauthorization of Higher Education Act, is the mandated allocation formula for federal student aid” (p.3). This formula is the standard formula that is used when determining who is eligible for federal student aid. Furthermore, Baum (2004) notes, “Federal Methodology still contains many of the details that were part of Uniform Methodology, but has evolved into a complex but imprecise system for allocating funds, rather than a reliable index of financial capacity” (p. 4). To illustrate an example Baum (2004) noted that “Federal Methodology does not consider assets for most families with incomes below $50,000 and ignores both home equity and family farm values for all aid applicants” (p. 4). It is important to note that for distributing federal funds, institutions must use Federal Methodology.
Institutions of higher education might often have other funds available to them in order to assist students. These institutions, “that have significant institutional funds to distribute seek more reliable measures to rank families and students by levels of financial strength. For those institutions, the College Board’s Institutional Methodology (IM) and modifications of that formulas are most prevalent” (Baum, 2004, p. 4) One of the ways that IM is different than FM is that IM takes into account home equity, family farms, and other assets and it sets a minimum contribution for all students (Baum, 2004).
The process of determining eligibility for federal student aid is complex for even the savviest students and higher education professionals alike. While the Federal government has made efforts to make applying for federal student aid less complex, as is evident by the FAFSA online application that is very user friendly compared to the FAFSA online version 10 years ago. Some progress is being made to make the process user friendly. However, the ability for students to understand what the federal government and institutions take into account when determining student eligibility still has a long way to go, as students are often left wondering why they did not qualify for any grants or scholarships, despite the fact that their families often struggle to make it day to day. It is not uncommon to hear students around higher education institutions mention something along the lines of “I didn’t qualify for any grants because I guess my parents make too much according to the FAFSA? I don’t know.”
Now, more than ever it is extremely important that students complete the FAFSA in an attempt to qualify for federal student aid. With the cost of tuition rising it is very rare that a student will not receive some sort of financial assistance as they proceed through their educational journey. According to an article in Civil Engineering entitled “Costs are Putting a College Education out of Reach” published in 2009, the article cites data from the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education that mentions “published college tuition and fees had rose 439 percent between 1982 and 2007 (adjusted for inflation), while the median household income rose just 147 percent” (p. 30). In addition the article also mentions, “In 2007 the net cost of one year at a four year public university constituted 28 percent of the median family income, while the cost of one year at a four year private school amounted to 76 percent of a family’s median income” (p.30).
Many speculate the reason tuition and fees are skyrocketing is probably a combination of how tuition is determined, and cost/demand side factors. These three variables all play a role in how and why tuition is rising at a rapid pace. While many government and state elected officials believe an educated workforce is crucial for a better society that will be able to compete in a global economy, education pundits often disagree if a high tuition/high aid (H/H) model that targets students financial aid, or a low tuition/low aid model (L/L) that targets universal aid is better (Curs and Singell, 2010). While an L/L model which has been historically adopted by less-selective public universities, typically charges low list tuition to foster access for in-state students (regardless of need or ability) while offering relatively limited institutional need- or merit-based (Curs and Singell, 2009, p.535).
“A H/H model can be used by universities to manage enrollments and generate greater tuition revenue. The HH strategy makes economic sense in the context of prior evidence that enrollment demand is inelastic such that tuition revenue can be raised by increasing the net price charged to well-to-do, less meritorious students and using the new revenue to subsidize needy and/or able students” (Curs and Singell, 2009, p.536).”It is known that “tuition policies directly affect affordability for students. Typically, however, the policies that establish tuition are narrowly framed” (Finney and Kelley, 2004, p.55).
Finney and Kelly (2004) note that the tuition practices are usually narrowly framed into one of the following ways—all which tend to raise tuition levels: 1. Tuition based on selected “peer” institutions. This generally increases tuition since the selection of peers is frequently based on institutional aspirations and mission specific characteristics instead of the ability of the students and families to pay 2. Tuition defined as a fixed share of total educational costs. This results in an increase in tuition when other shares of revenues (like institutional operating funds) are increasing and rarely results in tuition rollbacks when other sources of revenue decline. 3. Tuition rates established to “back-fill” revenue losses when state appropriations decline. This causes an immediate rise in tuition, which is rarely reduced when state budgets recover (Finney and Kelly, 2004, p.55).
While many will debate numerous methods in regards to setting tuition and fees, there are other factors that must be taken into consideration, which in turn drive up the cost of higher education. One of those factors is what higher education professional call “cost side factors.” Cost-side factors according to The Finance of Higher Education Theory, Research, Policy & Practice by Paulsen and Smart ( 2001) include: decreases in share of institutional revenue from state government, increases in constant-dollar value of instructional expenditures per student, minimal or no growth in conventional measures of instructional productivity, such as student-faculty ratio, increases in value of administrative expenses per student, increases in the constant value dollar of student services expenditures per student, and an increase in the constant dollar value of per student expenditure on institutional aid (p. 247).
Cost side factors seem to be influenced by the economy and the number of students that attend an institution of higher education. This often puts institutions of higher education in a difficult position when the economy is down, which affects its state funding. However, when the economy is down more students attend institutions of higher education, and as a result institutions of higher education are left trying to do more, and serve more students with less funding. This can sometimes lead to a spike in tuition.
Demand side factors according to The Finance of Higher Education Theory, Research, Policy & Practice by Paulsen and Smart ( 2001) include: increases in job market opportunities for college graduates relative to high school graduates, increases in the number of potential college bound students, especially due to increases in the participation rates of students of traditional age, across different levels of income, levels of ability, and racial/ethnic groups; and increases in the numbers of students of non-traditional age and students attending part time, increases in the constant dollar income of students and their families, increases in the tuition among all members of group of institutions that view themselves as good substitutes for one another, and increases in the constant dollar value of federal grants and loans to students (p. 248).
Demand side factors seem motivated by the simplistic economic theory of supply and demand. If a college graduate is going to have an increased likelihood of obtaining employment compared to an individual with a high school education, then there is going to be a higher demand for a “product” (education) that has the potential to lead to a better employment outlook. In addition, higher education is becoming more diverse and we are seeing individuals from all demographics seeking higher education. With the open access admissions policies of community colleges we are forced to rethink the traditional aged college student, with a more non-traditional college student. The more options that exist the more students will “shop around” to find an institution of higher education that will meet their needs. When shopping around students now have access to online learning thanks to the advancement of technology. With more options will come more choices, and the universities that offer the greatest flexibility will appeal to students the most. Unfortunately, the flexibility some institutions of higher education offer will include a tuition and fee bill that is rather monstrous. Hence, just like in a free market system where supply and demand help determine the pricing of goods, products, and services the same basic economic principles apply to higher education tuition.
In order to help finance their education students will seek federal student aid, and if more assistance is needed they might also seek alternative loans. “For students and families, affordability is best defined as the proportion of the annual family income required to pay for educational expenses (tuition, room/board), after deducting financial aid from all sources (federal and state governments and institutions), often called net price” (Finney and Kelly, 2004, p. 54).
When one starts to look at the different types of student loans they must make themselves fully aware of all the options available. According to FinAid.org, the official government website for student loan information, “Education loans come in three major categories: student loans (e.g., Stafford and Perkins loans), parent loans (e.g., PLUS loans) and private student loans (also called alternative student loans).” If one is in need of student loans to finance their education federal loans seem to be the best route as they offer flexible repayment options and have interest rates that are capped at a certain percentage determined by the federal government.
Private student loans are becoming more popular with students who need to finance their education and can have higher interest rates that are not capped. As Burd (2009) notes “unlike traditional student loans, which have a low fixed interest rates, private educational loans generally have uncapped variable rates that can climb as high as 20 percent—on par with most predatory credit cards” (p. 21). In addition, private loans are often easy to obtain and require minimal paperwork, while federal student loans require thorough
documentation of the applicants (and if applicable their parents) financial situation.
The cost at for profit and private institutions is usually considerably more than public colleges and universities. According to Burd (2009), “each year more than two million Americans enroll in for profit colleges. The students who are flocking to the colleges are mostly poor and working class and rely heavily on student loans to cover tuition” (p. 21).
The amount of loans that student can incur while pursuing higher education can be downright dreadful. According to FinAid.org, “The median cumulative debt among graduating Bachelor's degree recipients at 4-year undergraduate schools was $19,999 in 2007-08, and graduate and professional students borrow even more, with the additional cumulative debt for a graduate degree typically ranging from $30,000 to $120,000.” According to the Project on Student Loan Debt, “in 2008, 67% of students graduating from four-year colleges and universities had student loan debt. This represents 1.4 million students graduating with debt, up 27% from 1.1 million in 2004” (www.projectonstudentdebt.org).
More recently, The Project on Student Loan Debt website indicates “college seniors who graduated in 2009 carried an average of $24,000 in student loan debt” (www.projectonstudentdebt.org). The state of Texas fairs a little better compared to the national average as the average student loan debt for graduating college seniors in 2009 was $20,015 and a total of 58% of students graduated with student loan debt (www.projectonstudentdebt.org).
With this enormous amount of student loan debt it is easy to comprehend why many young adults are holding off on major milestones such as having children, buying a house, and marriage (Chaker, 2009). Once students complete their higher education experience many are left satisfied with the quality of the education they received despite the cost. However, there are also students who are left with disappointment and frustration with the education they received and the amount of student loan debt they have accumulated while pursing higher education. Most experts seem to agree that students should not borrow more than the salary they expect to make. This general rule should guide student decision making.
Once students accumulate student loans they must repay them. If students obtained federal student aid flexible repayment options are offered. However, according to the Project on Student Loan Debt, “four out of five borrowers with high debt have private (non-federal) student loans, which lack the important repayment options and consumer protections that come with federal loans” (www.projectonstudentdebt.org).
With student loans obtained through the federal government students have many options when it comes to repayment. With the standard repayment option students have 10 years to pay off their student loans. These plans have a fixed rate that the student pays for 10 years. This option is sometimes difficult for students if they have a high student loan amount. For students who need more time there are other options. The extended repayment plan according to Student Aid on the Web, the official government website for federal student aid, “Under the extended plan, you’ll pay a fixed annual or graduated repayment amount over a period not to exceed 25 years. If you're a FFEL borrower, you must have more than $30,000 in outstanding FFEL Program loans. If you're a Direct Loan borrower, you must have more than $30,000 in outstanding Direct Loans” (www.studentaid.ed.gov). The extended plan offers smaller monthly payments, but students will pay more interest in return due to the longer time frame of the payments. The graduated repayment plan is another option available to students. Under this plan “your payments start out low and increase every two years. The length of your repayment period will be up to ten years” (www.studentaid.ed.gov). This plan might be best suited for students who expect their salaries to increase steadily over time.
The income based and income contingent plans are both plans that students borrowers must qualify for. Simply put, this plan take into account your income, family size, and the federal poverty line and calculates a percentage of your income that must be used to pay your student loans. With these loans you can take up to 25 years to repay, and after that time period your loan is discharged, however, the student borrower must still pay taxes on the amount discharged. This plan can be good if under the standard repayment plan, students find themselves struggling.
Deciding to pursue higher education can be a costly and timely endeavor. Often the decision to obtain a student loan is a big decision. The decision to obtain a student loan has the potential to put the student in debt for quite some time. When obtaining a student loan it would be wise for students to review all of their options and become familiar with the federal student aid process. Students should be aware of the amount they will need to borrow, in addition to the potential salary for the career they are projected to go into.
Student loans can be burdensome and often there are horror stories of students that have borrowed more than they needed and find themselves in a terrible financial situation. There are stories of students who have had to put on hold dreams such as home ownership, starting a family, and other major milestones in a person’s life. It is important to note student loans cannot be discharged under bankruptcy. According to Hancock (2009), “Student loans were first singled out as non-dischargeable in the 1978 Bankruptcy Code, which replaced the 1898 Code. As more students began utilizing the student loan program, members of Congress became concerned that too many student-debtors were filing for bankruptcy after graduation in order to discharge their student loans” (p. 152). Furthermore, “currently, courts consider whether to discharge student loans using harsh tests that require debtors to show a "certainty of hopelessness." Under such rigorous standards, many deserving debtors with serious mental health problems have been denied discharge of their student loans” (Hancock, 2009, p. 151). Obtaining a student loan is huge decisions and should be treated accordingly.
Despite the potential to accumulate student loan debt, students will still take their chance and pursue their dream of higher education. Ironically, as previously noted the “demand” side factors that drive up tuition are the same reasons students pursue higher education. The potential for a better career, the potential to earn more, the potential for some sort of economic stability, and the potential of obtaining employment after graduation all motivate students to attend institutions of higher education. Much like the proverbial “carrot dangling in front of the horse” many students are chasing the carrot (employment, money, wealth) through education in hopes of a stable financial future that they perceive as a result of obtaining a college degree.
The affordability of a college education is likely to be the subject of debate for many years. Currently, with budget cuts and money slashed for higher education, institutions of higher education are looking to do more, with less. Some states, like Texas have even been issued a challenge. Governor Rick Perry challenged the state of Texas to develop a bachelor’s degree for $10,000. This idea would greatly benefit the students; however, the possibility of a $10,000 bachelor’s degree seems pretty farfetched given the deep cuts in education.
Government leaders stress higher education is often the gateway for a better life and will help stimulate the economy. Government leaders will mention that “a more educated society is a better society.” The challenge that government leaders, state leaders, and higher education leaders will face is how to make education more affordable and accessible for students across all socioeconomic levels. The topic of affordability is likely to be something that is going to be around for quite some time, given the fact the cost of college tuition has risen dramatically.
There is no doubt a college education can open up the possibility of potential opportunities for students who choose to pursue higher education. Students should be aware a college education does not necessarily equate to financial success, guaranteed employment, or guaranteed career success. Rather, students should view borrowing to pay for their college education as an investment in themselves, and just like with any investment it has the potential to yield a wealth of benefits, or be “up and down” in the benefits it yields. Students choosing to obtain student loans to pursue higher education should make themselves fully aware of what they are getting themselves into. At the same time it would serve students well not to have any preconceived notions (as hard as it might be) that a college education will “guarantee” them wealth or a career. If students understand this, they can position themselves to have more realistic views and expectations about what to expect. In the end choosing to pursue higher education is a privilege and an individual choice each student must make. Educate yourself, choose wisely, and remember student loans are an investment in the student’s future, for better, or worse.
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