Mercedes Sheffield works three jobs, receives state help to buy food and will graduate from WSU this year with more than $20,000 in debt.
Sheffield, a senior criminal justice major, is paying her way through school with a work-study job at the campus library, as a security guard for football and basketball games and as a mentor for the university’s multicultural centers.
“I work over 40 hours a week,” she said. “I don’t have any secure financial support. I am receiving less support from financial aid each year, and meanwhile, tuition prices are rising.”
Sheffield is one of the many students across Washington who are racking up large numbers in student debt, driven by the rising cost of tuition and decreasing state support. In the last decade, the cost of tuition at WSU has nearly doubled to about $8,600 in 2010-11 from about $4,500 in 2000-01, when adjusted for inflation. Today, the average student at WSU graduates with $20,544 in debt, according to Kiplinger’s February 2011 edition.
In the past two years alone, WSU’s tuition has increased 30 percent as the university has attempted to plug the shortfall of millions of dollars in state funding, said Joan King, executive director of planning and budgeting. The amount of support WSU receives from the state has decreased by 30 percent - or $133 million - in the last 18 months.
“Tuition is increasing and the state base is getting cut out from under us,” King said. “We’ve got students who are struggling to eat and go to school at the same time.”
This has triggered a profound change in the funding of Washington’s public higher education system, according to figures provided by WSU leaders. For example, in 1987, state funding provided more than 80 percent of the cost of a college education at public universities in Washington; by 2013, if the Governor’s budget is adopted, state funding will provide less than 40 percent, according to state projections.
This situation is not likely to end soon. Gov. Chris Gregoire has proposed a 4.2 percent budget cut to the state’s four-year universities and recommended a 9 to 11 percent tuition increase. WSU needs to meet both a permanent $13.5 million reduction and a temporary $7.48 million reduction, according to the school budget office’s fiscal year 2011 proposal.
“The way the higher education system is headed, the children of the wealthy are going to be fine,” said former WSU President Samuel H. Smith.
The children of middle- and lower-income families, on the other hand, are going to be priced out of the market, he said.
“We’ve got to have some kind of change in how the state funds higher ed because we can’t just keep charging the students more,” King said.
The University of Washington (UW) is expecting a 10 percent budget cut, but unlike WSU, no specific programs are being eliminated, said Bob Roseth, UW director of news and information. At the Seattle-based university, class selection is smaller, there has been a hiring freeze and class sizes have increased in some cases, Roseth said.
At WSU, the cuts are more pronounced. The university has trimmed more than 1,000 courses from its academic catalog, cut more than 500 positions and eliminated its rural sociology, German and theatre and dance programs.
WORKING TO PAY FOR SCHOOL
Karie Gill has seen the effects of the shift in higher-ed funding firsthand. Gill, who graduated in December with a degree in communication, juggled school and three jobs - barista, waitress and car dealership clerk - to pay tuition and bills.
“I give up being involved with extracurriculars because I don’t have the time between my jobs and school,” Gill said last semester. “At times, my grades will slip because I work too much because I need the money.”
Gill said she incurred about $2,500 in debt while attending Green River Community College and an additional $27,000 in federal and private loans during her two years at WSU.
“Having to (start to) pay the loans back six months after I graduate, with the economy and the possibility of not finding a job, is going to be really stressful,” Gill said. “It’s a lot of money to have to pay back.”
The maximum amount of public loans a student may take out at WSU is $23,000, said Chio Flores, director of financial aid and scholarships. If a student hits that cap, he or she must search for loans in the private sector.
Gill took out private loans through Sallie Mae and Discover in addition to federal loans. She also received $11,000 from a relative to help pay for her first year of college.
She said she gave up a dual-focus in journalism so that she could graduate on time in order to reduce additional financial and emotional strain.
Like Gill, Lindsey Keatts, a junior secondary education major, said she feels she is losing out on the college experience because she needs to live with her family for financial reasons.
Keatts commutes to her two Pullman jobs and school from Clarkston, Idaho. She works a combined 40 hours a week as a desk assistant at a residence hall and as an employee at the Pullman Wal-Mart.
“There’s stuff that goes on with the school that I have no idea about because I’m not in the right area of campus because I’m living (off-campus) with my family in Clarkston,” Keatts said in an interview last semester.
THE EFFECTS OF STUDENT DEBT
Students like Gill, Keatts and Sheffield are experiencing the emotional, physical and academic consequences of student debt.
Sheffield said working three jobs and trying to focus on academics is emotionally stressful. She believes her grades could be better and she could get more out of her education if she did not have to worry about finances all the time.
“Some days it gets to the point where my day starts at 9 a.m. and it will be non-stop where I won’t have time to eat one meal until 6 p.m.,” Sheffield said. “I also don’t eat as healthy as I normally would, and I have no time to exercise.”
Many students are now relying on state assistance for food because they are paying more for college. The number of individuals in Washington state participating in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) increased 15 percent from October 2009 to October 2010, according to statistics released by the United States Department of Agriculture Food and Nutrition Services.
Sheffield receives $200 a month in state assistance for purchasing food, she said.
“I have so much to pay for, and like I said it’s almost impossible for me to do it alone, so I value all of the support I receive,” she said.
Meanwhile, Smith is fighting to prevent additional cuts to higher education to help students like Sheffield.
“We’re going to be fighting for increases in higher education, but the way the budget is looking today, the odds of them increasing is slim to none,” Smith said. “We’re just hoping to not have another cut.”