In the Face of Skyrocketing Tuition and Debt, Hope is Found in Many Places 


As a college student, here are some numbers you should know. Two-thirds of Ohio university students will leave college with student debt, and the average debt of Ohio university graduates in 2014 was $29,353, according to The Institute for College Access & Success. The cost of attending college has more than doubled, adjusting for inflation, since 1986, according to a report published by College Board. As of 2015, the White House reports that the total amount of outstanding student debt in the United States was $1.3 trillion.

And with all that, there are still people within the higher education system who are able to find hope for the future. Who knew?

Take Chelsea Novario, an incoming freshman at Cleveland State University. She's majoring in nursing, a degree that PayScale states has a minimum median salary of $60,469. But when it came to deciding her major, she wasn't considering money.

"I've always had an interest in nursing because that's what my mom is, and I've always wanted to take care of people with whatever I did," Novario says.

The Mayfield Heights native is, of course, worrying about paying for her education. But she's hopeful that being at CSU will put her where she needs to be. "CSU has a lot of opportunities for nursing and other medical majors because of the hospitals around," she says.

CSU's yearly tuition for in-state students is $9,696, which is cheaper than most of its Ohio public university rivals like Ohio State University ($10,037 a year) and the University of Akron ($10,509 a year). The price difference is even more stark if Ohio's private universities are included, like John Carroll University ($37,180 a year) and Case Western Reserve University ($44,560 a year.) But as state funding for public higher education has decreased, CSU's tuition might still be too high for some prospective students.

"Since the largest share of our revenue is tuition, the biggest issue we face is our competitiveness in the marketplace in attracting qualified students," Cleveland State University's senior vice president of finance and business affairs Stephanie McHenry says via email. "State funding of higher education has increased slightly in recent years, but is significantly lower than 8-10 years ago. This is largely due to changes in demands on state resources and the economy."

To keep students enrolled and have them graduate on time, CSU offers multiple ways to stay on track toward graduation and possibly graduate earlier than the typical four-year program. This includes allowing students to register for classes for an entire academic year as opposed to a single semester and lowering the required credit hours for some programs to 120, which allows the possibility for students to graduate early.

"As a result, in part, of these efforts, CSU's four-year graduation rate has doubled over the last five years. And given the fact that every additional year that a student spends at a public four-year college costs approximately $68,000 (nearly $23,000 in cost of attendance and $45,00 in lost wages), reducing time to graduation greatly reduces costs to students and their families," McHenry writes.

At the state level, there have been major plays to curb the rising costs of higher education. The two-year state budget passed by the Ohio Senate last year included a mandatory freeze for all Ohio public universities without a guaranteed tuition program for the 2017 fiscal year. It also required colleges to create a plan to lower the cost of attendance by five percent, whether that comes from reducing costs or offering fast-track plans to graduation in less than four years.

One example of lowering costs at a local level is the modification of a Kent State University policy that charged $456 for every credit hour, over 16, that a student took in a semester. This was a variation of typical university policies that charge when students take on more than 18 or 20 credit hours.

Ryan Kreaps, a 2015 graduate of Kent State University and an organizer for the advocacy organization Ohio Student Association, was part of the student effort that ultimately led to the reversal of the policy.

"A lot of students were upset by (the policy) because it would affect when they graduate, since they would take less credit hours and maybe stay an extra year. Or they could pay more now, which would affect how much student debt they were going into now," Kreaps says.

He is critical of the idea that if you work hard enough in high school and college, you can get more financial aid and pay off your student debt easily. His experience with applying to colleges back when he was a prospective college student backs him up, as he was at the top of his class at Warren High School and had a variety of volunteer and extracurricular experiences but had lackluster scholarship opportunities.

"I did all the things that you were told to do in order to ease your burden, and I would still have to pay so much for college out-of-pocket," Kreaps says. "I was fortunate enough that my family could help pay, but I still had to spend about $20,000 of my own money for tuition. And that's from doing everything right."

The issue of combating high student debt has already accelerated to the national stage. President Barack Obama started by offering a plan to make two years of community college free across the nation. During the primary cycle of this year's presidential election, one of Sen. Bernie Sanders' main talking points was making public universities free to attend. Now-Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton responded by introducing a plan to allow 25 million borrowers to refinance their student loans and eliminating tuition costs for any family making $125,000 or less a year.

Meanwhile, the Republican presidential candidate does not currently have a plan to address student debt or rising costs of college.

For Kreaps, he's thankful that the issue is being talked about nationally.

"The fact that free higher education is being talked about on a national stage was something I didn't even think was possible three years ago," he said. "And the reason that has happened is because of all the student action and student organizing that's saying, 'This isn't right. We're just trying to get an education.'"

Kreaps says that OSA has been engaging in a voter registration drive across the state and has registered over 9,000 voters so far for the presidential election; they are planning on registering 20,000 by the voter deadline. They are hoping that these new voters will help create a voter bloc of college students who will vote based on the needs of students, such as higher education being a right for everyday people. It's something that makes him hope for the future of student organizing.

"The more I get into it, the more I understand what students and regular people can do and how we can stand up and fight back," Kreaps said. "Every three to six months a year, we keep learning better ways to organize and learning where we need to build power to affect the system."



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