By Tovin Lapan, Santa Cruz Sentinel
SANTA CRUZ, Calif. _ In 2009, Ashley Sorci graduated from her suburban Sacramento high school with a 4.25 grade-point average and was about to become the first person in her family to go to college.
She got into Humboldt State, the University of California, Davis, and UC Santa Cruz. She chose UC Santa Cruz because she loved the city and campus, and was considering a major in the one-of-a-kind community studies program.
The only problem was that her family, which owned a small business and was heavily invested in real estate, was on the brink of insolvency and could not help her.
Before the 2009-2010 school year, Sorci’s freshman year, tuition rose 9.3 percent to $7,788. Despite not having any assistance from her parents, she believed in the value of a college degree. She got a job, received some grant money and took out loans to cover the rest.
By the start of her sophomore year tuition had been raised twice, a total of 32 percent, and stood at $10,302. Just months earlier she learned UCSC was effectively shutting down the community studies program to new students in a cost-cutting move.
“There was this slow-motion process of me realizing I can’t live like this,” Sorci, 20, said. “As a freshman I wasn’t as aware of my finances; I thought I had the money to go out to dinner. Now, my money is rationed so strictly there is nothing left to do extra. I’m either working or in school six days a week, and I know I’m just not able to put as much work into school as I should. I doubt my decision to come here all the time. I’m not sure what I’ll do.”
UCSC Chancellor George Blumenthal said he knows students are falling through the cracks left by state cuts, some having to take on jobs and greater financial aid, while others opt to drop out. Even though the university takes precautions to protect the poorest students from tuition hikes, there are fewer jobs on campus and in the community to help make ends meet for them and middle-income families.
“The middle class _ that’s where I’m really concerned,” he said.
At the end of the tunnel toward graduation, a $40,000 debt and a weak job market are looming for Sorci, and she is considering dropping out.
Yet, in some ways Sorci could be worse off. If her parents had not fallen into a lower income bracket just before she went to college, she could be even more dependent on loans.
“My boyfriend’s parents are right there in the middle, and they don’t get any grants. They were only offered loans,” Sorci said. “I see most of those people drop out. They work full time and get no help. I really think they are in a worse position than I am. I have grants. … In a sense I was kind of lucky my parents got really poor. You’re better off really poor or really rich. You just don’t want to be in the middle.”
Sorci says her parents wish they could help her, but they have nothing to contribute. As she pays her own way, they can only encourage her with tales of how their own lack of a degree has limited their opportunities. Her younger brother, a senior in high school, is working so he can help the family and pay for end-of-high-school events such as the prom.
As worries about access grow, however, the importance of a college degree is perhaps more important than ever for future earnings and job prospects. According to the U.S. Department of Labor those with an associate’s degree have an unemployment rate less than half the jobless rate for those who did not finish high school. Bachelor’s degree holders have an unemployment rate of 5.4 percent, while people with a high school diploma alone have an unemployment rate of 10.3 percent. The median income for college graduates was roughly 66 percent greater than that of high school graduates in 2010.
Sorci has a dream, and she arrived at UCSC’s campus with more of a life plan than most 18-year-olds.
She is studying sociology now that her chosen major has been suspended, and she hoped to fall back on her degree to find work out of college while she saved money for her real goal, a farm. Marrying her love of veterinary sciences and an inner drive to save money, she vaccinated her dog, Kaya, herself.
Yet, as she sees her debt increase every quarter in school, she wonders if a farm, a debt-laden venture to begin with, is a possibility any longer. Now, after a series of increases, tuition is more than $12,000, nearly 57 percent more than when she started.
“I’m finding it hard to stay focused because I don’t have much time to myself,” said Sorci, who works 20 to 30 hours a week at a shop in downtown Santa Cruz. “It’s been incredibly hard to juggle work and school. I’m not getting very much sleep, and I’m getting sick a lot. My immune system is shot.”
She has kept her grades up with a 3.8 grade-point average at UCSC, and is receiving a campus scholarship in addition to some state and federal grant money.
“The effects of four years of budget cuts are very visible here,” she said. It’s harder and harder to get classes. The class sizes are bigger than ever and there are fewer sections for each course than before.”
She arrived at UCSC fired up to be in a beautiful setting with passionate students and teachers, but now is more torn than ever on whether to stay.
“Asking a 21- or 22-year-old kid to leave school with $40,000 or $50,000 in debt is crazy,” she said. “Where do students draw the line? Maybe I should have aimed lower, and gone for an associate’s degree or some other program. It’s disheartening, and it makes me feel this isn’t my place anymore. People like me should go elsewhere.”
The state systems of public education are facing financial hits from every side. The recession not only led to substantial cuts in state support, but also drops in the market that left pension plans underfunded. Health care costs are increasing, and there is more demand for classroom seats than ever.
Colleges are highly labor-intensive _ up to 70 percent of a budget can be salaries and employee benefits _ so college budgets rise more quickly as health care, pensions and other personnel costs rise beyond inflation.
Nationwide, tuition has risen at a faster rate than costs have risen on any other major product or service _ four times faster than the overall inflation rate and faster even than increases in the price of gasoline or health care.
If UC’s fees had increased with the rate of inflation, students who paid $776 in 1980 would have paid $2,200 this school year.
Relying on a once-bullish market, UC stopped contributing to its retiree health and pension system for 20 years.
“It’s pretty unprecedented that no one contributed to the pension plan for 20 years,” UC Office of the President Executive Vice President of Business Services Nathan Brostrom said. “It has to be one of the longest pension holidays that ever occurred, and quite frankly in retrospect it was a mistake.”
In their 2010 book “Why Does College Cost so Much?” David Feldman and Robert Archibald of the College of William and Mary in Virginia argue that while there are inefficiencies in how universities and colleges are run, that is not the primary cause of the rapidly increase cost of attending.
“Like many large organizations, American universities could be made more efficient, but our review of the evidence convinces us that the primary forces that are driving up costs are not to be found by scouring the account books of colleges for examples of waste,” the two academics wrote in Forbes magazine at the time of the book’s release.
Feldman and Archibald point out that higher education is not akin to businesses that have the flexibility to move more fluidly with market forces.
Colleges are reliant on a highly educated workforce, and costs for such employees have steadily risen since the 1970s.
Additionally, while technology frequently decreases the cost of production for profit-making companies, it can raise costs for colleges. Universities cannot easily reduce work hours as students still covet personalized learning experiences and small class sizes. Meanwhile, colleges must purchase new technology and add courses to keep their students up to date on the latest techniques in their chosen field.
“As the national income distribution has skewed toward those with ever more years of schooling, children from families with wage earners that are less well educated find a college education, especially from a selective four-year institution, harder to afford,” the authors note. “This is a problem for our financial aid system, and that system is part of the problem. It is needlessly complex, and it increasingly fails to provide access to many students who could succeed in college. We need to streamline this system and rewrite the funding relationship between public universities and their state sponsors.”
As the cost of attending college has escalated rapidly, even those students and families who planned carefully for years have been left scrambling to scrounge up extra money.
In particular, as grants have been set up in the past few years to help the poorest students manage the tuition increases, middle-class families that barely surpass the income cutoffs for grants are left spending a greater portion of their earnings on college.
Approximately 8 percent of California student borrowers who took out federal loans for college and entered repayment in 2009 defaulted on their loans within two years, according to data released in September from the U.S. Department of Education. It is the highest federal student loan default rate the state has seen in at least six years.
“The middle class is the group we are most concerned about now,” Brostrom said. “They don’t qualify for federal aid, they don’t qualify for Cal Grants, and we don’t have enough institutional aid to help them.
They are the ones facing the biggest financial stress proportionally. Families making between $90,000 and $120,000 a year are spending the greatest percent of family income on college costs.”
Santa Cruz attorney John Christerson is like a lot of middle-class parents. He wanted his kids to go to college because he saw the importance in terms of future success. Now he has three children who are all attending public universities at the same time. He managed to squirrel away money for his first child, but could not do the same for the others.
“Frankly, I make a good salary,” he said. “I don’t know how most people could do it if they aren’t getting help in terms of scholarships or loans.
“I don’t think most families today can afford to put money aside for their kids to go to college. It’s hard for me to put away money. My goal is to get the kids through school without them owing money, with a clean slate. I’ll probably borrow money against my house to pay for it.”
With tuition increases an annual occurrence during the past four years, and future increases looming, many of those paying for college are watching the numbers and hoping to make it through.
UC President Mark Yudof announced in November that he plans to ask the state for enough funding to increase enrollment 1 percent in 2012-13 and avoid raising tuition in the next year. Yudof seeks a bump in state funding of $411 million, or 8 percent, to bring the total state funding to about $2.8 billion. Yet, the state has not met UC’s funding request since the year 2000. Yudof said any tuition decisions would wait until he knows what the state will contribute for next year.
“We have done a pretty good job serving low-income families (by covering the increases in tuition with grants),” Yudof said in a press conference in early November. “I think the squeeze is more at the middle level. … We could take an additional 20,000 to 25,000 students if we had the financial wherewithal. The state needs to think of this. The population is growing and the colleges are being terribly squeezed. … There is less meat on the plate and more that want it.”
For Sorci, she said she is living on “faith” that she will be able to manage her debt in the end. She continues to work as many hours as she can get, and is living frugally.
Her boyfriend, meanwhile, worked two jobs and took out loans for two years before dropping out. He is still working in Santa Cruz, and hopes to return to school at some point.
“My boyfriend’s family could only get loans, and they can’t help him with school,” Sorci said. “His tuition was covered, but nothing else. It just wasn’t enough for him to be able to make it. I’m going to see how tuition works out for next year. I may still leave if it goes up again.”
The A-student still hopes her college experience will pay off someday, and she won’t regret the debt she has accrued.
“When I graduate I don’t expect to get a job using my degree in sociology,” she said. “I’m thinking the most probable job I would get where I would make the most money is at a restaurant. I see my degree more like a long-term investment in this case. Basically I’m keeping my options open, because I feel like it might be worth it someday.”