The financial challenges of staying in school

PROVIDENCE, RI – Around the country, students and recent graduates are ringing alarm bells about the growing burden of student loans. And in Rhode Island, state colleges have come under fire recently over an employee pay raise at a time when tuition continues to rise.

I met University of Rhode Island sophomore Melinda Morales at a student lounge on the school's South Kingstown campus. Over small cups of ice cream, Morales explains this is a rare luxury. This 20-year-old watches every penny.

"I don't have money to spend on movies and stuff like that," she says. "I carry about $20 a week with me regularly to make sure that I have milk or whatever else I need, and I try to stick to the dining halls because it's expensive when you have to keep re-stocking your room for food. Ramen is my best friend."

Morales lives with constant uncertainty about whether she will be able to stay at URI. This year she almost had to quit because of the gap between her scholarships and grants, and the cost of tuition, room and board. What's shocking is how small the difference was, between one more semester of college and leaving URI, possibly for good.

"It was about 1700 that wasn't paid," Morales says. "It doesn't sound like much but when you don't have employment, it's very difficult to come up with $1700."

Morales gets a lot of financial aid from URI, but both of her parents are unemployed, so they can't really help pay for college. They also couldn't co-sign for a bank loan. And that's how $1700 becomes a roadblock, even though it's just a fraction of the roughly $20,000 cost of being a full time student.

"It's extremely stressful," Mendes says. "It's hard to focus on 5 classes, and worry about finances and working and you know transportation. Those things are very stressful."

Anyone who meets Morales would have no idea the kind of stress she's under. She doesn't really like to talk about it, and it certainly doesn't show. She has large inquisitive eyes and wears her long dark hair pulled back with a big black bow. Morales says this neat exterior hides a lot of worries about the future.

"It actually causes pretty high anxiety and sleeping problems, I currently need to take medication to help me sleep because of the stress," she says. "So that's what I'm going through right now. It's definitely difficult to balance all of the stress on top of academic stress."

All of that stress is not likely to let up. Morales is a pre-med biology student with a demanding course load. She's also thinking of becoming a certified nursing assistant, so she can work while she finishes college. To do that, she'll have to pay for six months of extra classes at a community college. She feels she has to make the sacrifice to afford URI's tuition when it goes up another 9 and a half percent in the fall.

"Each time the tuition goes up, it makes it a little harder for me," she explains. "That's just more that I have to take out in loans or more that I have to work for. Which means I have to go backwards in order to go forwards. If I don't put myself in debt, I'm not going to get anywhere in life."

Professor Lynne Derbyshire heads the Communications Department at URI, the university's second largest department in terms of majors.

"We need to find a way to make it more affordable," Derbyshire says. "We really do."

When students like Morales and countless others are struggling to pay for college...Derbyshire tries to help them find solutions.

"I firmly believe in education, but I don't know if I could say to somebody, yes, you should take out $100,000 to get an education," she says. "Because yes, over your lifetime economically it pays to have a college degree. But that means that you have to postpone all of the other things in life while you pay off that loan."

University officials say there are many reasons why tuition keeps going up at URI, but one big factor is a lack of state funding. They also say the university gave out roughly $80 million in financial aid this year, although each award varies widely.

As the bells mark noon on URI's main green, students gather to chat or play catch on the lawn. Just over 40 percent of these students will fail to complete their degrees within six years, and the number is closer to 50 percent for minority students like Melinda Morales. Provost Don DeHayes says the university has been working to improve that number.

"We've been in the last few years very aggressive about tracking particularly that first year," DeHayes says. "Before the student gets in trouble or gets so lonely that they just leave, we can have someone reach out to them and say how can we help, and in many cases we can help. If there's a frustration we have, it's that we have extraordinary services. We can't rely on them to ask us is what we're finding."

DeHayes says more than 80 percent of first year students stick around for at least a second year, the highest rate in nearly a decade. But recently the university has started seeing a new problem. Instead of first and second year students dropping out, hundreds of seniors have stopped coming back. DeHayes says the reasons varied widely.

"Some of them, frankly, there was a tone of pessimism more about the larger economy," DeHayes says. "Students saying I'm not sure it's worth it to get my degree. You know, there's no jobs out there anyway. And we're trying to lure that group back because we believe frankly it's partly our responsibility, certainly our desire to help that group of students finish what they started."

"Finish What You Started" is the name URI has given to a new campaign to get these students back to school. Looking back over the last decade, URI found more than 2500 students who dropped out only a semester or two away from graduation.

Back at the dining hall, biology student Melinda Morales says she's determined not to become one of them.

"I can't. If I do that I'll end up like everybody else who just doesn't push themselves to finish, ending up in debt without anything to show for it," she says.

This sophomore knows what she's talking about. Her own mother quit school at 19 when she was pregnant with her.

"I think my mom would probably kill me if I decided to stop going to school," she says.

Morales's mom got into debt paying for a high school equivalency program and now she can't find a job.

"She wants a different life for me than she had," Morales says. "She doesn't want me to have to struggle and she wants me to be in a position that when I have a family and its time to do this for them, I'm able to help them. And I want to see myself through that. I want to be able to say that I made my mother proud in doing that."

And that's why she wants to be a doctor. That way she can make enough money to pay off her student loans and have some left over to help her family. But to get there, she'll have to spend a lot more money and time in school, and the first hurdle is just making it through college.

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