The Jacksonville State University freshman said she worked hard her senior year at Piedmont High School to snatch any scholarship that came her way, lowering the tuition she’d have to pay to attend college. And at the end of the day, her parents were able to help her make ends meet by paying the rest of the cost.
“I have a lot of friends, though, that have taken out so many loans,” Garrett said Friday, walking to class on campus. “I would be really stressed out if I did that. That’s a lot of debt.”
Rising tuition has made hefty loans a necessity for many college students. Almost 70 percent of Jacksonville State University students have taken out loans to pay for school, according to data collected in the 2011-12 school year by the National Center for Education Statistics. And for students who can’t afford to take on that kind of debt, it often means they can’t find a way to get a college education at all.
“If my parents weren’t helping me out, I wouldn’t be able to go to school,” Garrett said. “There are a lot of people out there that don’t have that luxury.”
On Thursday, President Barack Obama hosted a White House forum with more than 100 university and college leaders to focus on strategies to recruit low-income students. Obama said his goal is to “build ladders into the middle class” by helping universities provide education to high school students whose economic standing might otherwise prevent them from getting a degree.
“The White House’s focus has the potential to have a big impact if it is sustained and if it is not just on the opportunity for low-income students to go to college, but for them to graduate with meaningful credentials without burdensome debt,” said Pauline Abernathy, the vice president for the Institute for College Access and Success, a Washington D.C.-based nonprofit organization, in an email to The Star. “Some colleges do a much better job of doing this than others, and the White House’s focus can help ensure more colleges do.”
Jacksonville State is one of those schools attracting low-income students, said Rebecca Turner, vice-president of academic and student affairs for the university.
“We’ve always been a school of choice for our region, which is mostly rural, low- and median-income families,” said Turner, noting that 47 percent of JSU’s undergraduate student body received federal assistance from Pell grants, provided to low-income students. “We keep our tuition below the median for the state, and that’s why so many of those students choose us.”
Turner said that now, an in-state Jacksonville State student pays $283 per credit hour. While that’s below average for the state of Alabama, it’s still a big increase from what students at JSU were paying just a few years ago. For the 2013-14 school year, students pay $6,792 for two semesters of 12 credit hours each. In 2007, that cost was $4,056.
“I’ve taken out three different loans,” said Ron Gooden, a JSU junior, who laughed when asked how much debt he’ll have when he’s finished with school. “A lot.”
Even with loans covering tuition, many students still have to find jobs while attending school to make ends meet. Kelsie Potts, a JSU junior from Maryland, said she started working part-time last semester at Yamato, a Japanese restaurant just off-campus. The 20 hours per week she put in started affecting her grades.
“It got really tough,” Potts said. “Last semester was stressful, and it’s starting to get stressful again.”
Garrett, who is a political science major, said Friday she didn’t know the solution to rising tuition prices, but said any government action could be a step in the right direction.
“If there was some type of federal government scholarship, other than loans, which aren’t really helping people,” Garrett said. “But they don’t really have anything like that.”
The Associated Press contributed reporting to this story.
Staff writer Brian Anderson: 256-235-3546. On Twitter @BAnderson_Star.