With the average college tuition reaching new heights at public and private universities, high school students and their parents, particularly those of lower income, are under greater pressure to not only find the most suitable institutions but also the best financial aid packages.
Although many universities, including Quinnipiac University in Hamden, provide financial aid packages to a large portion of students, they may not be able to cover all their students’ financial needs and may force students to transfer or take on crippling debt, Charlene Torres, a Quinnipiac senior from Bridgeport, said.
Torres said some of her friends have had to drop out of Quinnipiac due to their inability to continue paying the tuition or their increasing debt.
“I know my roommate sophomore year was taking out $30,000 in loans every semester just to go here,” Torres said.
Financial aid is a common concern on campus. In 2017-2018, 89 percent of students were on some form of aid, according to the school’s annual financial brochures. The year before, the figure was 89 percent, and it was 81 percent in 2015-2016.
That same year, the average college tuition for U.S. public colleges and universities was $16,757 and $39,011 at American private institutions, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. For many families in America, where the U.S. Census Bureau reports the median household income was only $57,617, college is a significant investment that could make or break a student’s life by giving them better job opportunities or plunging them into debt.
In 2017, the national average student debt was $37,172, according to America’s Debt Help Organization. Even after students have made the decision to come to a certain university, financial struggles may still force students to change schools or drop out.
Torres, who is majoring in journalism and minor in Spanish, was once one of the many high school students who had to carefully weigh her financial packages when deciding which college to attend. Although Torres has received multiple forms of financial aid, including scholarships, loans and grants from the university, government and other private organizations, she said she still faced trouble paying for college.
“I know for me, Quinnipiac is a really expensive school…[but] this was the only one I (where) I had to take out $3,000 in loans each year, and the rest was all covered,” Torres said.
Although the yearly tuition and room and board at Quinnipiac was more than $60,000 and the most expensive out of the colleges she was accepted into, Torres said that the education and reputation at Quinnipiac was worth the $12,000 of debt she has accumulated.
“I was okay with that (taking on debt) because it would teach me responsibility, and when I get a job, I will be able to pay it back here and there,” she said. “I wasn’t too stressed out about it.”
However, Quinnipiac did not provide the most amount of financial aid. In fact, Torres said she was pressured by her parents to attend a more affordable college.
When Torres was considering colleges, she was also seeking other financial resources. As a ward of the state, Torres was eligible for a $30,000 scholarship. Combined with the various merit scholarships that Torres received for her grades and extracurricular activities, Torres said she was confident that she would be able to afford her college education without forcing her parents to pay out-of-pocket.
Another Quinnipiac senior, Samuel DaCosta of Johnston, Rhode Island, who is majoring in communications, went through a similar process as Torres and took financial aid and tuition into consideration when deciding which colleges to apply to and to attend.
“A lot of my decision making was basing the value of opportunity against the cost. When finally deciding on Quinnipiac, I had the two colleges (Quinnipiac and Hofstra University) that I felt offered me the most opportunity and had given me the best financial aid and scholarship offers for the cost,” DaCosta said in an email. “I went with Quinnipiac in the end because I loved the campus, but as I looked at the value, I felt I was getting to narrow my options down to those two.”
Even before DaCosta had to decide which college he wanted to attend, he had already made some decisions about college based on finances. Since DaCosta wanted to be a sportswriter, he ruled out the Ivy League universities like Harvard University or Yale University and focused on the schools he could attend with his GPA, SAT scores and financial resources.
“I didn’t feel like the value was worth the cost (at the Ivy League universities), both financially and mentally, as I wanted initially to be a sportswriter,” he said. “It was more of a question of financial aid and scholarship money.”
DaCosta received financial aid from Quinnipiac, merit scholarships and private and federal loans to cover half of his attendance.
Both Torres and DaCosta said financial aid could be improved to reach more low-income students who may be hesitant about attending expensive universities.
Torres and DaCosta said many students who attend Quinnipiac are of upper-middle or upper class, which may cause social and financial tensions about signs of socioeconomic status like clothing, cars and houses.
For example, Torres said she occasionally feels anxious when driving her older car around campus because other students are driving more expensive, newer cars like Porsches.
“My car is really old and beat up and then there are Porsches driving around campus,” Torres said. “It did make me feel a bit insecure, but what made me feel better was that I worked hard to get here…”
Although DaCosta has the lowest family income of his friends and the smallest house of his roommates, he said he does not feel that he has ever been marginalized.
“…I have definitely had a great Quinnipiac experience so far and I don’t feel as though I have ever been looked down upon,” DaCosta said. “I have great friends and I’ve built up a good relationship with some of my professors.”
Torres and DaCosta said that the financial aid provided by the school and other institutions could be improved, potentially by offering more grants and scholarships instead of loans.
Torres proposed that the federal Stafford loans be changed to scholarships so that students do not have to worry about paying them back. Torres also suggested the idea of an essay contest in which the best, most hard-working students would have priority on financial aid.
Quinnipiac Associate Professor of Journalism Richard Hanley acknowledged that the administration and faculty of the university are aware of the financial burdens that students and their families are under and are trying their best to limit tuition increases and bolster financial aid.
“Everyone at the university is acutely aware that many students will be borrowing money to attend the school, so the financial aid office seeks to minimize that post-commencement burden as much as possible given the price of tuition and room and board,” Hanley said.
Hanley added that the faculty serve on scholarship committees that seek to find donors who will provide potential scholarships, internships and work-study opportunities at Quinnipiac.
“That process helped to secure an annual scholarship available only to Quinnipiac journalism students from the Record-Journal Foundation,?a local newspaper’s charitable arm,” Hanley said.
Ultimately, Hanley said he encourages students to do their best to find more financial resources and not be hesitant to apply for them. As college tuition continues to rise, more financial aid will be needed.
“We promote the (Dow Jones News) scholarship around campus but not as many students apply as we think should apply,” Hanley said. “We need to do a better job of getting the word out, but students need to jump at?such opportunities.”
Benjamin Cai is a junior at Phillips Exeter Academy in Exeter, New Hampshire. He is from Cumberland, Rhode Island.