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Costs shut door to higher education

One year from now, Ellie Cameron expects to walk up to the cashier at San Francisco State University and hand over the full cost of her in-state tuition up front. At under $2,000, it will be a lot less than she paid to go to Mills, and she won’t have to worry about accruing additional loans. Cameron left Mills after completing her sophomore year last May for a number of different reasons, but foremost among them was cost.

“The latest tuition increase was the icing on the cake,” said Cameron.

With the price of undergraduate tuition up $2,550 from that of last year, many students are experiencing a growing financial strain. But unlike Cameron, most are not being driven away by the price tag. Enrollment is at a record high, and student retention rates are on the upswing according to an administration official. To remain at Mills, a number of students say that they or their families have had to take on more loans, work additional hours, or plunge into their savings to meet the latest increase.

Sophomore Lynette Arnold says that Mills awarded her additional scholarship after the tuition increased, but it was not enough to cover the whole amount.

“I had to dig into my meager savings to pay the difference – despite the fact that I had worked hard to accumulate this $1,000 in savings as a safety net in case of an emergency,” said Arnold. A resuming student working her way through school, Arnold is now working two part-time jobs in addition to her course load to replenish her savings account.

As many continuing students are aware, this year’s rise in cost was the largest and latest in a series of planned increases. Tuition increased by $2,500 in the 2005-2006 school year, by $2,250 in 2004-2005, by $2,000 in 2003-2004, and by $1,500 each of the two years before. That means that Mills students are shelling out over $12,000 more for tuition than they did just six years ago.

Mills undergraduate tuition is over $12,000 more than it was just six years ago.

According to The National Center, the average Californian family would have to spend 76% of their income to pay for private four-year college tuition.

Last year’s increase alone was too much to bear for senior Trinity Hamrick’s parents, who told her they would no longer be able to afford tuition. “I had to temporarily leave Mills until I was old enough to qualify as independent on my FAFSA,” she said. Luckily for Hamrick, that only entailed taking one semester off. A traditionally aged freshwoman in the same situation would either have to get married or leave school for several years before the federal government considered her independent at age 24.

Assisstant Dean of Students Kennedy Golden tries to meet with students who want to take time off or leave Mills altogether, but says that many never come in for the interview or complete the exit survey. “They think we’re going to pressure them to stay,” says Golden. Those who do speak with Golden cite a variety of reasons for their departure, most of which have little to do with cost, but “there are of course students who are seriously affected by the annual tuition increase,” says Golden.

Hardest hit by the increases, according to Golden, are students who aren’t financially supported by their parents but the federal government considers financially dependent nonetheless.

“It’s a horrible catch-22 for some students,” said Golden. “But the college does its best within the circumstances to assist them.”

According to David Gin, director of student administrative services and financial aid, Mills generally compensated for the recent tuition increase by upping institutional scholarships to students whose Expected Family Contribution (EFC) was the same as or less than the previous year. “The issue is the outside aid that students get has not increased, and we can’t control that,” said Gin. “Institutional aid is the only source that has increased to compensate.”

Students and their families are not just being squeezed for cash here at Mills. The problem, according to Associate Provost for academic affairs Andrew Workman, is a national one. “The cost of education is up but federal and local funding is not,” said Workman.
The Federal Pell Grant, which is the nation’s largest source of financial aid for low-income students, has been frozen for years while both public and private tuition costs have risen significantly. The Pell Grant covered 76 percent of tuition at four year colleges and universities between 1990-91. Now the average Pell Grant only covers 48 percent at these institutions, according to a study published last month by the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education. Meanwhile, tuition and fees have increased at more than twice the rate of family income.

In fact, the cost of higher education is now so difficult for some families to meet that it was a key factor in the National Center’s recent declaration that the United States has fallen behind other nations in the race to educate its young people beyond high school.
“I’m devastated looking at the amount of debt students are leaving with,” said Golden, who encourages students who are having trouble financing their education to speak with M Center representatives. She says they “absolutely bend backwards within the guidelines they are given.”

Unfortunately, that’s still not enough for some students. Cameron is paying off $15,000 in loans for only one year of a Mills education. She says that she wanted to graduate from a small liberal arts institution, but one year of heavy debt is too much. Cameron puts it simply, “I feel trapped.”