Image: Rachel Pilliod
Rachel Pilliod, student body president at the University of Oregon, says she may have to drop out of school if tuition fees go much higher.
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msnbc.com

Staring at the Hudson River from a bench in the student lounge, Savanah Lallbachan ponders her future. With dwindling savings and a $300 tuition increase slated for the fall semester, Lallbachan, a 25-year-old student at the Borough of Manhattan Community College, says she will leave school and take a full-time job as a hospital switchboard operator.

“I just think it’s unfair,” Lallbachan says of the increase. “I decided to come back to school and now I have to leave again. It is very difficult.”

Lallbachan, who emigrated to New York City from Guyana seven years ago, enrolled at a community college upon her arrival, but only completed one semester. When she lost her job with American Airlines last year, Lallbachan returned to college in January, using unemployment benefits to pay the tuition. Those funds now exhausted, Lallbachan said she will not be able to return to school until next January.

“I would love to be in college and work, but this job won’t permit it,” she says, referring to her new job’s rotating shifts.

Widespread problem
Across the United States, public colleges are raising tuition to make up for the loss of state funds for higher education. California is close to hiking tuition from $11 per credit to $18, with similar-sized increases planned in Maryland, North Carolina, Iowa and Texas.

In June, the City University of New York (CUNY), which operates 12 four-year colleges and six community colleges, approved 25 percent and 12 percent increases, respectively. Students at CUNY’s Borough of Manhattan Community College will see full-time tuition rise from $2,500 to $2,800 per year.

Unlike Savanah Lallbachan, Omali Munroe will stay, though he says it will be difficult. “It’s a little bit discouraging,” says the 22-year-old from Brooklyn. “I have to find extra money to pay off the tuition now.”

Studies suggest not everyone will be able to make up the difference. For instance, the Community College League of California, a non-profit corporation, estimates that the $18 per credit price could result in over 123,000 students leaving school. Over half would be minorities.

Munroe, who is African-American, says he quit a security guard position last year to go to college full-time. Financial aid covers only half his educational expenses. Waiting in line for financial aid forms, he peruses the help wanted ads in a local newspaper. When asked if he intended on finding work, Munroe says: “I am, definitely. Where else is the rest of this money going to come from?”

Experts concerned
Scott Lay, the director of state budget issues for the California community college group, concedes they are not sure what to expect. When CUNY raised tuition in 1995, nearly 8,000 students, mostly African-Americans and Latinos, left.

Lay adds that: “This is a loss in demand, which could be offset by other students attending who previously couldn’t get into classes that were full. It changes who can attend, but not necessarily the number of people attending.”

Community colleges have long-served as affordable stepping stones for minorities and the working poor into higher education, and tuition hikes disproportionately affect minorities, who compose over half the community college population nationwide.

Though a $300 tuition increase may seem minor compared with the steep costs of elite public and private universities, community college students typically have tighter budgets.

The diversity issue
The recent Supreme Court ruling affirming the use of race as one factor in university admissions policies has overshadowed the possible effects of tuition hikes on diversity, experts say.

Kermit Hall, president of Utah State University in Logan, says access to higher education becomes a non-issue if students cannot afford the tuition.

“The best way to create a more diverse education is to remove the financial barriers that block access,” Hall argues. “It’s not the only way but I think it’s the central concern.”

Adding to this problem, he says, is a relative drop in available financial aid. Currently, a federal Pell Grant, which goes to the neediest students, has a maximum award of $4,000 per year. While this amount may cover costs and fees for community colleges, that figure falls far short of the cost of most four year state universities, dashing the hopes of many who hope to continue their education after completing their two year programs.

Others, however, dispute this. Michael Arena, a spokesman for CUNY, says that financial aid in New York State was adequate. “The ones who are most financially needy because of this increase won’t be affected,” Arena says.

“The pricing system has gotten complicated but there is help out there,” he says. “You just have to be a savvier consumer.” CUNY, he notes, runs workshops to inform people of the various programs available to pay for college.

But back at the financial aid office, that is cold comfort to 19-year-old Maria Carol,

who works part-time to pay for school.

“I get a good paycheck, but this is too much,” she complains. “It hurts.”

Carol said that $300 increase would impede her ability to pay for books, which cost her over $600 last year. So far, she has fought off the urge to drop out. But she understands not everyone can manage that, including some of her friends driven out by higher costs. “I can’t disagree with them,” she says. “It’s true.”

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