Middle-class students feel pain of limited financial aid

Students from middle-class families tend to rely on loans because they aren’t eligible for need-based financial aid.

Ahnalese Rushmann

Theodor Maghrak said he considers himself from a middle-income family. Because of the financial squeeze, his parents don’t help pay for college.

The senior studying Spanish, whose parents are divorced, said he wasn’t eligible for financial aid because his mother’s income made his expected family contribution appear larger.

Like many students, Maghrak took out loans and said he gets frustrated by financial aid formulas that don’t consider parents’ other financial obligations, such as mortgage payments.

“Once you’re that step lower, then the grants kick in,” Maghrak said. “Once you’re above it, you get screwed just putting yourself deep into debt.”

Stanford, Harvard and Yale have all recently expanded financial aid and tuition breaks for students from middle-income families, and while the University’s operations are in a different league, it raises the question of whether middle-income students are getting pinched.

University senior analyst Peter Zetterberg said students who don’t qualify for need-based grant assistance might need to rely on loans more than other students.

“Most of our students are from middle-income families and a lot of them do rely on loan programs,” he said. “That’s not a new development.”

With need-based aid, the University’s primary focus has been on students who are eligible for a federal Pell Grant, said Kris Wright, director of the Office of Student Finance.

Pell Grants are need-based grants provided to low-income undergraduate students. The grant amount depends on the student’s expected family contribution, enrollment status and attendance cost and length.

She said the University has been tracking average debt for at least 10 years.

More than 60 percent of the 2006-07 graduating class borrowed money, Wright said. A student’s average debt totaled $24,995 – roughly a $300 increase from the previous year.

With next year’s expected overall 7.5 percent tuition hike looming, the University has been pursuing ways to provide more scholarship money.

In 2006-07, the University awarded more than $42 million in scholarship funds through 10,308 scholarships – an average of a little more than $4,000 per scholarship.

Established in 2005, the Founders Free Tuition Program aided more than 2,000 students last academic year with free tuition and fees, but only helps Pell-eligible students.

“That doesn’t mean that we don’t recognize there’s not a need for others,” Wright said. “But we have limited funds.”

Based on benchmarks for families of four, families in the $60,000 to $70,000 income range are expected to pay the highest percentage of their income toward tuition, said Barb Schlaeffer, spokeswoman for the Minnesota Office of Higher Education.

Wright said the philosophy that a family contributes financially to a child’s education exists on national, state and institutional levels.

“That’s how all the federal aid programs are structured,” she said.

In 2007-08, there will be a $5 million increase from last academic year in state grant dollars available primarily for students from middle-income families, Schlaeffer said.

There was $156 million total awarded in fiscal year 2007, which closely matches the 2006-07 academic year. The amount is calculated based on statewide need.

“It’s admittedly a small increase,” she said. “But it was a sign that policy makers recognized that this is an issue of growing concern.”

Schlaeffer also said the University received a “sizeable appropriation” from the state last year, specifically for scholarships for undergraduate Minnesota residents with a family income less than $150,000 per year.

Amanda Chapman, a linguistics sophomore, said she comes from a middle-income family and, like Maghrak, her parents can’t afford to help pay tuition.

“The way that they figure estimated family contributions is really flawed,” she said.

Chapman, a Nebraska native, said she transferred to the University from Northwestern College in St. Paul after her scholarships there ran out.

She said her debt will be manageable in the long term, but now working 20 hours a week on top of 18 credits takes a toll.

Wright said programs, like the United Parcel Service’s Earn & Learn Program, ROTC and the Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program are all ways to ease the tuition burden.

Maghrak said he thinks students shouldn’t have such limited options.

“I shouldn’t have to work the graveyard shift for UPS,” he said. “I shouldn’t have to sign my life away to ROTC” just to pay for college.

Figuring out how to finance an education isn’t just for those with a high school diploma in hand.

Michael Bierlein, a high school junior and PSEO student from Chaska, said his parents and grandparents told him he’d get more financial aid and scholarship money if he went to a private school.

But the amount of financial help he can get will be less of a factor in his decision because he’s already receiving a lot of college credit, said Bierlein, who’s mostly considering private schools.

Advanced planning can pay off in the long run, Wright said. And as for how early students should start planning?

“Eighth grade would be early,” she said.