Jessica Hembree, 19, a sophomore at the University of Georgia, is taking a semester off from school to focus on working at her jobs to get ahead of her student debt. 

Many Georgia students feel overburdened by rising college costs

Athens resident Jessica Hembree, who wants to become a doctor, began her college career last year but she took this semester off.

Why? She wanted, needed, to save money to pay the additional thousands of dollars it will cost her to attend the University of Georgia this fall.

College of Coastal Georgia student Vieira Owens talks about the potential impact of tuition increases next school year for herself and classmates.

Hembree, 19, is working three part-time jobs, putting in about 40 hours a week, yet she hasn’t saved up as much as she’d like.

Her task may get tougher.

Thousands of students across Georgia like Hembree are struggling to afford college as tuition rises and money the schools get from state government hasn’t kept up with increases in enrollment. Last week, the Georgia Board of Regents voted to increase tuition by 2 percent at UGA and more than two dozen other schools this fall. Other fees, though, stayed about the same at most schools.

Once upon a time, Georgia was considered an innovator in college affordability by virtue of its HOPE Scholarship. The Great Recession forced state lawmakers to revamp the scholarship to keep it viable. Today, Georgia ranks in the middle in most surveys of student debt and college affordability.

The average cost of attending a University System of Georgia school increased during a recent 10-year stretch from $8,361 to $14,791 a year, a 77 percent increase, according to a recent state audit. Meanwhile, state appropriations per student declined from $8,312 to $7,024 during that same time period, the audit found.

“Your education is worth it, but at the end of the day, it’s stressful,” said Hembree, who began her college education at the University of North Georgia. “You have educational stress and financial stress.”

Rising tuition, less government funding for public colleges and more student debt is a national, some say worldwide, problem. An annual report on college finances released last week by the State Higher Education Executive Officers Association found state funding per student has declined by about 17 percent nationwide since the Great Recession.

“As the state decreases its share of the cost … financial pressure continues to increase on students and families to make up the difference,” Georgia Budget & Policy Institute higher education analyst Jennifer Lee wrote in a report earlier this month about the financial squeeze.

A joint paper by the Global Education Monitoring Report and International Institute for Educational Planning released last week found many governments, including the U.S., are struggling to keep pace as the number of university students doubled to 207 million between 2000 and 2014.

About one in three of the University System of Georgia’s 320,000 students during the 2014-15 school year had unmet financial need totaling $808 million, even after receiving subsidized loans, experts say. Many students become so stressed about their finances they drop out, resulting in each case in one less member of the workforce without a degree.

“What do people do? They stop out or drop out,” said Lauren Asher, president of the California-based Institute for College Access & Success.

Last week’s report on international college affordability suggested student loan repayments do not exceed 15 percent of a student’s monthly income.

About 61 percent of Georgia students carried some debt, according to a 2016 report by the Project on Student Debt at the Institute for College Access and Success. The average student debt is about $28,000, researchers found. The highest average debt was at Clark Atlanta University, a historically black university near downtown, at nearly $41,000.

Critics say federal and state leaders are compounding the problem. The proposed Trump administration budget would reduce federal financial support for low-income undergraduate students through Pell Grant funding by nearly $4 billion. It also would cut funding for the federal work-study program.

Much of the rising cost has been in student fees and housing. Morehouse College officials encountered a student uproar last year after the all-male, private historically black college required students to live on campus at least three years, increasing costs by more than $10,000 a year for some students.

Clark Atlanta officials this school year began pushing a new effort to reduce student debt. The program, called “15 or 18,” encourages students to take at least 15 credit hours each semester to graduate sooner, and with less debt. Undergraduate students nationwide take an average of 12 credit hours, some research shows. CAU freshman Pierre-Julien Agudze, 18, joined the program after watching videos about it. He’s paying for school, largely through loans, and is worried about the cost.

“It is a lot of money that I have to pay back,” said Aguzde, born in France and raised in Philadelphia.

Aguzde, a business administration major, plans to take at least 18 credit hours in his sophomore year with the goal of graduating in less than four years.

University System of Georgia officials began a similar effort about five years ago to encourage students to take at least 15 credit hours a semester, in part, to reduce their debt. About three-quarters of the schools in the USG have embraced the effort, officials say. Some schools have a system that alerts a counselor when a student has a low test grade. The student then gets tutoring to help complete the class.

The program, they say, has shown some success. At Georgia Southwestern State University, the proportion of freshmen taking 15 or more credit hours has increased from 17 to 75 percent. At Augusta University, the increase is even greater: from 8 percent to nearly 85 percent. Georgia State University estimates its students in the past three graduating classes saved $12 million by earning their degrees quicker.

Georgia State’s Retention Grant program, which provides students an average of $900 for various expenses, has earned national acclaim. Last year, the university said nearly 2,000 students received the grants. Sixty-one percent of the seniors who received Panther Retention Grants last academic year graduated within two semesters of receiving the grant, the university says on its website.

Some high-priced colleges are trying to help students graduate even sooner. New York University, where the tuition is more than $60,000 a year, has a program that allows students to graduate in three years.

Georgia’s neighbor Tennessee offers free tuition, primarily for students at two-year schools.

New York lawmakers last week passed legislation to become the first state that will offer free tuition for students attending its state university system. The students, though, must live and work in the state for a certain number of years to receive the scholarship. If they don’t, the tuition grant becomes a loan that must be repaid.

University System of Georgia officials noted their schools’ average tuition, about $7,100 a year, is the sixth lowest among the 16 states in the Southern Regional Education Board.

USG Chancellor Steve Wrigley said he’s acutely aware of the problem. He worked while getting his undergraduate degree from Georgia State University.

“It is a challenge,” Wrigley said in an interview. “I know what it’s like. I’m very sympathetic.”

The state audit found most of the increases during the last decade stem from rising dorm costs and skyrocketing student and athletic fees. The USG made several moves last year to reduce those costs, asserting greater control over decisions by colleges that resulted in students paying more to attend school.

Wrigley announced a plan last week to review administrative spending within the system. Officials hope that will result in reduced costs for students. Still, he noted a college education requires some investment by students.

Some students say the investment may be too great.

College of Coastal Georgia freshman Vieira Owens said she may have to leave the scenic campus in Brunswick and return to metro Atlanta to attend college as a result of last week’s Board of Regents vote to increase tuition. The Sandy Springs native is working part-time at Publix, but she’s not getting enough hours to pay for her dorm and her other college expenses.

“I feel like tuition should stay where it is,” Owens said Wednesday morning, less than an hour after the Board of Regents ended its meetings on her campus.

A solution to the overall affordability problem is elusive.

Aides to Gov. Nathan Deal tout his efforts to make college more affordable through actions such as preserving the HOPE Scholarship and creating the REACH scholarship, a needs-based scholarship for high-performing students. Asher’s group wants an expansion of Pell Grants.

As Asher said, “We’re far from consensus about the right solutions.”

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