Meet Rachel Sweeden. She is 19 years old, lives in New York City and works full time as a nanny. She also has a paid internship at a start-up company, is financially independent from her parents and is a part-time student at New York University (NYU).
She will graduate with $150,000 in student loans.
“I have faith that getting an NYU degree will be worth it in the long run,” Sweeden said. “I turned down a full tuition offer at Butler. I would definitely say that an NYU diploma is worth more.”
The cost of college has risen dramatically in the last decade. For a student living on campus at NYU, the yearly cost to attend is $59,337. For the academic year of 2002-2003, the total cost of attendance was $39,406. Eighty-six percent of students graduate in six years.
“I really wish I had more time to experience the typical university life,” Sweeden said. “In the long run it is more expensive to do school part time, because I don’t get my scholarship unless I’m full time.”
Sweeden started at NYU in the fall of 2011. She anticipates graduating in the spring of 2016 because she took off last fall to work full time and earn money for school. Her parents were hit hard by the recession and encouraged her to go to a state school, but she was excited about an NYU education and moved to the city.
Sweeden’s story is not unique. Over the last decade, the cost to attend college has risen 2.3% at private universities and 3.8% at public, according to CollegeBoard. In a recent survey of 193,000 first-time, full-time freshmen at 283 four-year colleges and universities, 66.6% reported that the economy significantly affected their choice of college. Moreover, only 40.6% will graduate in four years, although 83.4% plan to.
Nicole Traboulsi, a student at California State Polytechnic University – Pomona (Cal Poly), said she would be at a community college if it weren’t for her scholarships. Cal Poly wasn’t her first choice, but it was the best school with the most financial aid offered. She has a bleak outlook for the future of tuition nationwide.
“There will be the rich who can go to school and the poor who can get the scholarships,” Traboulsi said. “And everyone else will be left to community college, the last affordable option.”
University of Notre Dame political science professor Deondra Rose said the financial aid and scholarships available to help the middle class combat the cost of college are often hidden and students pick schools outside their budget, tempted by the brand.
“Americans hold higher education in a particular esteem,” Rose said. “Vanderbilt, Emory, the Ivies all have hefty price tags and they reflect many of the resources that are available at these institutions. But is their degree worth more? I don’t know.”
Yet many college students like Sweeden forgo a loan-free future to take the risk that Rose is wrong. Facing unmanageable debt, some choose to leave school early.
“I’m sad that I will leave behind all my friends,” said Sheila Callahan-Victore, a student at Tufts University who will graduate up to a year early. “We just can’t afford for me to stay here.”
Many attribute their financial battle to the recession and lack of sufficient financial aid. Amy Lukes also attends NYU, and is graduating early despite turning down full rides elsewhere.
“I went from being an only child who lived comfortably to being someone who was going to graduate early because of money concerns,” Lukes said. “I’ve looked up tons of scholarships but they all seem to be for science and math. I just don’t feel like the resources are there.”
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