Local colleges try to ease expenses as students struggle

jmink@macon.comApril 21, 2013 

Wesley Sewell knows what it’s like to get hit with a financial shocker. A nontraditional Middle Georgia State College student, Sewell recently found out that Georgia’s HOPE scholarship is running out for him.

“That really blindsided me,” he said. “When your tuition is $1,200 and you get $400 from HOPE, when you’ve been getting almost 100 percent (paid for), you’re having to make that up through student loans and other means.”

Sewell said changing scholarship regulations caused his scholarship to run dry quicker than he had anticipated.

When it comes to finances, college students across the nation are struggling as states cut education budgets, forcing many colleges to increase tuition and students to go further in debt for an education. In Georgia, the Board of Regents just announced fall semester tuition increases for public colleges and universities.

It’s the same situation in the midstate, where college administrators have been forced to raise tuition and students have dipped further into their pockets. As they try to balance student affordability with shrinking budgets, Middle Georgia institutions are offering students some options -- and some are getting creative.

“It’s not always about tuition. There’s tuition, fees, housing, transportation, books,” said Sheri Rowland, vice president of enrollment management at Middle Georgia State. “We do see families, I think in today’s economy, that are struggling a little more than they did in the past.”

Financial assistance

Middle Georgia State, along with other colleges, is now partnering with private companies to give students some help. The program allows students to pay their tuition through a lending company, which puts students on an interest-free payment plan. It’s helpful, Rowland said, because students do not have to pay the bulk of their tuition up front. It gives them some leeway.

A similar program is underway at Georgia College & State University, where qualifying students can pay their tuition in installments through an outside lending company. It’s particularly helpful because the state mandates that all tuition is paid by the time the semester begins, said Paul Jones, vice president of administration and operations there.

“Not everybody has the money up front to help them pay right away,” he said.

The Milledgeville-based college also is putting students to work to try to offset rising expenses. For those students in the most dire of financial situations, the college has set aside $175,000 a year to place them in on-campus jobs, Jones said.

At Wesleyan College in Macon, administrators are re-evaluating the work study program. Most students use the program to cover costs other than tuition, such as loan payments or textbooks, said Danielle Lodge, the financial aid director.

“We’re looking to ... put a little bit more (money) into it and give students the opportunity to earn more funds,” she said.

Like at other institutions, some Wesleyan students can pay their tuition through lending company Sallie Mae, which allows them to pay in installments.

And for those who still cannot come up with the money to stay in school, many colleges offer emergency loans. Wesleyan shelled out $66,000 in “rescue funds” this year, Lodge said.

“It’s almost last-minute when a student finds she can’t pay her bills,” she said.

After spending 18 years in the University System of Florida, Rowland said she was shocked when she came to Middle Georgia State and realized the high amount of internal funding the college allocates to emergency loans. About $100,000 in emergency loans is allocated each year to students who need additional financial support.

“We understand that students sometimes have difficulties coming up with money to pay for incidentals or pay for books or for a course,” Rowland said.

And there are scholarships. At Mercer University, scholarships have remained stable in the midst of a weak economy.

“We’re very blessed to have a really good endowment, and our alumni really believe in what we’re doing,” said Alejandra Sosa, director of freshman admissions. “Our alumni are doing well and are still able to make those donations.”

Sosa came to Mercer about nine months ago and was surprised by the large number of full scholarships the private school offered. She had been at other private institutions that offered a handful of such scholarships, but Mercer gives out about 40 a year, she said.

But the economy can take a toll on scholarships that are based on private donations. Like most public colleges, Georgia College’s scholarships felt the impact when the economy tanked a few years ago, Jones said.

The college has been trying to raise additional funds for scholarships. In the midst of a recession, it started a capital campaign, which Jones says was successful, and plans to soon begin another campaign.

High cost of education

Still, cutting back is anything but easy. At Georgia College, officials have been able to mostly spare the instructional side, keeping classes staffed and scheduled. But like all public institutions in the state, tuition has increased as state funding has decreased. State legislators budgeted more than $100 million in cuts to public colleges, which have taken place over the past year and will continue this year.

“So tuition has increased over (the past few years) significantly,” Jones said. “We recognize the University System (of Georgia) is doing everything it can to slow those increases. So that’s been a real concern of ours.”

Tuition also is climbing at private colleges, where a weak economy affects the amount of money coming in. At Wesleyan, tuition has increased 2 to 3 percent a year. Lodge has been at the school for 14 years, and tuition has risen about $500 each year, she said.

“That might not seem like a lot of money to you or me,” she said. “But to a lot of our students, it is.”

At Mercer, officials work to keep tuition increases below 3 percent, Sosa said. Next academic year, tuition will increase 2 percent for undergraduate students. Still, that is the lowest increase in a decade, the university said in a statement.

This academic year, the total expenses to attend Georgia College -- including tuition, books, housing and other costs -- is estimated at more than $23,000 for in-state, on-campus students. Rewind three academic years and that cost was about $18,100, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

At Fort Valley State University, the cost is about $19,800, compared with nearly $17,900 in 2009-2010. Middle Georgia State, which was formed in January when Middle Georgia and Macon State colleges merged, will release its new tuition rates in July, according to its website. At Middle Georgia State, the total to attend is more than $15,150 this year for on-campus students. That amount was nearly $11,930 in 2010-2011, according the National Center for Education statistics.

‘Cuts and cuts and cuts’

At Middle Georgia State, some students say that even though tuition has increased, they are thankful it is still low compared with many other colleges. Still, they are leery of what might happen if budgets continue to drop.

“We’re in a state where education is not the top priority,” said Johnathan Jackson, president of the Student Government Association on the Macon and Warner Robins campuses. Jackson is pursuing an associate degree in physics and plans to attend the Georgia Institute of Technology for an environmental engineering degree.

“If we continue to see cuts and cuts and cuts, it’s really going to affect vital programs,” he said.

Some students, such as Sewell, recognize the efforts their schools are making to ease the burden. Middle Georgia State’s new adult learning center, for example, will help nontraditional students search for financial aid and jobs, Sewell said.

Still, the burdens are there. In addition to losing a chunk of money from his HOPE scholarship, Sewell is faced with completing college within two semesters, before his federal Pell Grant expires. He had expected the grant to last longer until cuts were recently made to the program.

A psychology major who wants to attend law school, Sewell says his wish is for the government to make education spending a priority and increase job availability for new graduates.

“That would at least reassure us students that when we get out of college, we would have jobs to go to,” he said, “even if we have to go into student debt.”

To contact writer Jenna Mink, call 256-9751.

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