PULLMAN – Mercedes Sheffield works three jobs, receives state help to buy food and will graduate from Washington State University this year with more than $20,000 in debt.
Sheffield, a senior criminal justice major, is paying her own 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 racking up big 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, a personal finance magazine.
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 at WSU. 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.”
That has triggered a profound change in the funding of Washington’s public higher education system, according to figures provided by WSU. For example, in 1987, state spending 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 spending will provide less than 40 percent, based on state projections.
It’s unlikely to end soon. Washington Gov. Chris Gregoire has proposed a 4.2 percent funding cut to the state’s four-year universities and recommended a 9 percent 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 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.
Said King, “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.”
The University of Washington 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 gotten larger 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 theater 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 public relations, juggled school and three jobs – barista, waitress and car dealership clerk – to pay for school 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 can take out at WSU is $23,000, said Chio Flores, the school’s 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 that 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. She works a combined 40 hours a week as a desk assistant at a residence hall and at the Pullman Walmart. “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, and she believes she would get more out of her education if she didn’t have to worry about money all the time.
She receives $200 a month in state assistance for buying food, support she said she appreciates.
“I have so much to pay for, and like I said, it’s almost impossible for me to do it alone,” she said.
Anecdotally, it seems that more students are using the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program – food stamps – although state records don’t indicate whether recipients are college students. Still, the number of people participating in the program in Washington increased 15 percent from October 2009 to October 2010, according to the state. Meanwhile, Smith, the former WSU president, 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.”