Dollars and degrees

Kentucky students struggle to overcome soaring cost of college

Lofty goals have been set in Louisville recently for getting more high school students into college. In addition to the 55,000 Degrees initiative — seeking to increase college degree holders in the city by 55,000 by 2020 — the Louisville Urban League created 15K Degrees, whose goal is to see black students achieve 12,000 bachelor’s degrees and 3,000 associate degrees.

However, despite some progress in college admissions, such efforts are running into a problem: Students are struggling to overcome the soaring costs of tuition in Kentucky, without a corresponding increase in available aid.

Melissa Helton-Allender is the college access resource teacher at the Academy at Shawnee, where a major push is under way to see more graduates accepted to college. As LEO reported in May, a five-year, $3.9 million grant through the Gaining Options for College Collaborative has provided additional college counselors at a handful of Jefferson County high schools — including Shawnee — to boost the number of low-income minority students attending college. This spring saw positive results, as 83 percent of graduating Shawnee seniors were accepted and enrolled in some form of postsecondary education, a sharp increase over previous years.

Though Shawnee has made strides, Helton-Allender says students going to college this fall have encountered financial difficulties.

“Usually our students qualify for the maximum amount of aid,” Helton-Allender tells LEO. “But this year, we do have some kids who are having to make changes to their plans because they can’t get enough financial aid to cover their tuition and living expenses.”

The graduates having to make the largest adjustment are those accepted to a four-year university. Due to yet another cut in the state’s budget for higher education, both the University of Louisville and University of Kentucky have raised their tuition by 6 percent this fall. The tuition at U of L for a full-time undergraduate is $9,466 this year, more than double what it was nine years ago.

This tuition increase has not seen a corresponding increase in Kentucky’s College Assistance Program, which gives need-based aid to low-income students. Though Helton-Allender notes that almost all of Shawnee’s outgoing class qualified for CAP aid, the Herald-Leader reported last month that since 2006, the General Assembly has raided $90 million in Kentucky Lottery funds intended for financial aid.

Last year, 37,839 students were granted CAP aid before the $60 million fund ran out, with 80,724 eligible students turned down, almost four times the number from just five years earlier.

Several students have crunched the numbers and decided to stay home instead of live on campus, Helton-Allender says, while some have decided not to attend U of L or UK, instead attending their fallback school, Jefferson Community and Technical College, hoping to save enough money to transfer in a year or two.

While she notes that most JCTC students have enough federal and state grants to cover tuition, some cannot cover the full amount required for school expenses, as JCTC has again raised tuition, which has tripled since 2001.

Those students sticking with their four-year university have no choice but to wade into the dangerous world of student loans to make up the difference in tuition, books and living expenses.

“I always advise kids to avoid loans if they can,” Helton-Allender says. “But some of our kids have had to, and gone ahead and maxed out on loans. Some of them still couldn’t get enough with loans unless their parents took out a loan, which most are either unable or unwilling to do.”

Student loan debt has grown into a national epidemic, as the total outstanding debt surpassed $1 trillion last year. In Kentucky, 58 percent of students have such debt, at an average of $19,375.

Miranda Fitz is one of the Shawnee graduates who expected to avoid such financial troubles. Accepted to U of L, she met the requirements for the school’s “Cardinal Covenant,” a program initiated in 2007 in which incoming freshmen with at least a 2.5 grade point average and a score of 20 or higher on the ACT, and whose family is below 150 percent of the poverty level, would be guaranteed up to five years of both tuition and living expenses fully covered.

However, she found out when attending student orientation that her application lacked one of the necessary tax forms from her parents — a common dilemma for students — and since the deadline had passed, she was ineligible.

Still set on going to U of L, Fitz is now scrambling to find enough funds to pay her tuition and expenses.

“I got my Kentucky Educational Excellence Scholarship money (merit-based aid), but I guess some of the application forms kept my (Pell Grant) money from going through, so I don’t know if I’ll get that money yet,” Fitz says. “I plan on taking out loans, because I don’t have many other choices.”

As bleak as the situation already is for many low-income students in Kentucky, it could get even worse: Republicans have advocated cutting federal Pell Grants further, and a change in leadership in the Senate or White House could bring those plans to reality.

Meanwhile, Fitz has applied for a job at UPS in hopes of receiving additional help with tuition, but her college plans remain uncertain.

“I’m just terrified about how I’m going to pay for it, because college is going to start in about a month,” Fitz says. “I have my heart set on U of L, I’ve always wanted to go there. I can’t not go to college. But trying to find ways to pay for it is just … (sigh).”