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Category: Education, Economy

With Budget Cuts to Higher Education, Lower-Income Students Struggle

| October 9, 2009

Funding cutbacks not only make tuition less affordable for many college students relying on government loans, but they also affect course availability, campus jobs, and other essential factors for earning degrees.

College students across the country face increased costs and decreased funding. The Chronicle of Higher Education reports that next year will be worse.

As public and private campuses cope with financial loss from state budget cuts or declining private endowments, abrupt tuition increases have left students scrambling to cover the cost of their education. Decreased course availability has meant a second scramble to maintain financial aid eligibility, campus employment, health insurance, and to stay on track for graduation. For low-income students—and especially for women with parenting responsibilities—the impact is particularly acute.

Elizabeth Eagen is trying to finish her teaching credential in English Literature at California State University, Long Beach. The mother of four—ages 17, 15, 11, and two—plans to pursue graduate degrees in educational leadership and clinical or child psychology. “But due to the budget crisis,” she explains, “it has been difficult for me to find available classes. As a result my financial aid is in jeopardy and, therefore, my education.” Without financial aid, Eagen will have to quit school. She is not alone.

MFA student Justine Middleton, also attending CSULB, reports that in addition to fewer available classes and what she calls “this ridiculous furlough business” in California, budget cuts have limited her on-campus employment. A single parent who supports herself and her child with no outside help, Middleton now earns a bit over $500 a month as a graduate assistant, half what she made last year.

Robert Haynes, a fourth-year student at the CSU San Bernardino campus, wonders how he will pay college now that his state grant no longer covers the cost of his education. The biochemistry major, set to graduate in the spring of 2011, was forced to take out student loans last year. Haynes estimates he will accrue $9,000 more debt just to cover the current tuition increase. The chance that fees could go up again, along with an uncertain job market, leaves him and others worried.

Educational and political leaders struggle to address this worry and affirm their commitment to providing funds for needy college students. Sarah Lawrence, a highly selective liberal arts college just north of New York City, increased student financial aid by 19 percent to offset tuition and housing costs that top $50,000 a year. At the University of California, where annual undergraduate fees will soon exceed $10,000, UC President Mark G. Yudof promises extra financial assistance for students facing hardship.

The 23-campus California State University—the largest state university system in the country—recently imposed its second fee increase this year, to a total 182 percent increase since 2002 with talk of more increases coming soon. F. King Alexander, president of California State University, Long Beach, explains, “the California state budget debacle has resulted in massive cuts to public schools, colleges and universities, which means that those hurt the most are California's children and students. These cuts have been so devastating that California now falls behind other states like Kentucky, Arkansas, and Mississippi in its public tax support of its children and students despite being a much wealthier state.” This matters to the nation because, in a state ranked near the top of all global economies, what happens in California sends ripples beyond its borders.

The U.S. Senate is considering legislation, already passed in the House, that would deny the nation’s banks federal subsidies for student loans, thus freeing more money for income-based Pell grants. But until those funds are available, students report cuts to work-study funding, overcrowded classrooms on campuses that cost more, absent financial-aid workers due to furloughs or lay-offs, and campus employment that has dried up along with other funding sources.

Low-income undocumented immigrant students face additional challenges. While guaranteed access to higher education in states such as Arizona, California, Rhode Island, and North Carolina, this cohort is often denied in-state tuition and remains currently ineligible for state or federally funded financial aid. The Pew Hispanic Center estimates that 65,000 undocumented students graduate from U.S. high schools every year, many of whom came to the United States with their parents as small children.

One student explains, anonymously: “Because we cannot legally work in this country, we must take any menial job we can in order to pay for school, rent, food, etc.” While they wait to hear about financial aid packages, or work to save up to pay out-of pocket tuition, low-income students are sometimes forced to register for classes at the last minute. Because budget cuts have impacted course availability, students are now finding that required classes are either full or cancelled.

And, while fees continue to increase and low-income students fight to cover the cost, several states are providing more money for their prisons than for their universities. According to California State University Chancellor Charles Reed, the state spends $49,000 a year per prisoner and $4,600 per year for each student attending the CSU. Despite correlations between decreased educational opportunity and increased incarceration rates, New York, Minnesota, Michigan, and Vermont also provide more state money for its prisons than for higher education.

In this time of recession, students hope that earning a college degree will open doors to a better financial future. Yet beyond instrumental functions—improved jobs and increased salaries, for instance—higher education also promotes critical thinking, and the possibilities for personal and social transformation. To reduce these prospects, along with funding for higher education, merits serious concern about the foundations and the future of our democracy.