Middle-class students hardest hit by tuition hike, U officials say

Maggie Hessel-Mial

Whitney Goodrich works 10 hours per week during the academic school year and 40 hours during the summer. Growing up in Plymouth, Minn., she always had food on the table and a warm bed to sleep in at night.

While her parents don’t find it easy to provide financially for every aspect of Whitney and her brother’s college educations, the federal government says she is not eligible for grants to help her through school because her parents make too much money.

Middle-income families are typically hardest hit by tuition increases. But one University official said it’s those families specifically who can take advantage of new tax breaks aimed at lowering education costs for the average-income family.

Nancy Sinsabaugh, interim director of student finance, said she worries middle-income students will suffer most in the wake of the latest tuition hike.

“There is no doubt that needy students need the most help,” Sinsabaugh said. “But the students I’m more concerned about are those that the federal government says aren’t needy because family income and assets are high, or only one student in the family is going to college at that time.”

University President Mark Yudof, in a speech to the Board of Regents on July 12, agreed.

“Middle-class students will be the net losers in this tuition hike,” Yudof said.

National trends show the numbers of grants and scholarships awarded has remained at a stable level, while the amount of loans taken out by students has increased dramatically.

But Craig Swan, vice provost for undergraduate education, said a type of tax break can shoulder the burden of a tuition increase for middle-income families.

“Students from families earning between $50,000 and $130,000 will be able to take advantage of new tax breaks that will cover the increase in tuition,” he said. “It’s the dependent students from families who earn between $20,000 and $50,000 that will see higher bills without the help of an increased Pell grant or as much tax relief as families with higher income.

“The new tax credit will be worth more than the increase in tuition,” Swan added.

The Hope Scholarship Credit is a tax break aimed at students in their first two years of school for college-related expenses, according to the Higher Education Service Offices Web site.

A student not claimed as a dependent on any other person’s taxes, or a family that claims a college student as a dependent can expect tax breaks, Swan said.

The HESO Web site says students receive a $1000 break the first year of school and $500 the following year.

Without the tax break, many students are forced to take out loans. Most students coming from lower-income households can receive grants from the federal government, while others – some from middle-income families – might qualify only for loans. Grants, including the federal Pell grant, are monies that need not be repaid.

The financial aid department at the University is responsible for dispersing federal funds to students with the most need. Sinsabaugh stressed there is no way to predict exactly which parental income level would receive the student grants. Need is determined by many factors other than income, including the number of children in a family, assets and the number of children in college at one time.

“Middle-income families are often working very hard to provide the estimated financial contribution – an amount that the government says the family should contribute,” Sinsabaugh said. “For some families it’s a stretch to provide the EFC, and with the tuition increase the families have to cover the difference or it has to be covered by a loan.”

Goodrich said she and her family are feeling strained financially after the latest tuition increase.

“I work as hard as I do during the summer because I want to pay as much as I can without taking out loans,” she said. “My goal has been to not take out loans because when I go to grad school I don’t want to start out with debt.”

A successful college career for Goodrich is expected to pay off – possibly making it easier to pay potential loan debt, Sinsabaugh said.

She said the potential income of college graduates has been found to be much greater than the income of those who did not go to college. She said the problem lies in the ever-increasing cost to get that education.

Swan agrees.

“A college education is expensive, but there is clear evidence about the financial returns to individuals with a college education,” he said. “The most recent evidence shows that individuals with a college degree earn over $900,000 more” in a lifetime than individuals with a high school degree.

Sinsabaugh said students need to be smart in financing their education.

“This increase of tuition and more students accepting loans is forcing 18-, 19- and 20-year-olds to be financially more responsible than 30 years ago,” she said. “Students need to be financially responsible and savvy, which is a skill all adults need.”

Said Yudof, “Parents have to start thinking about higher education differently. Parents of a sixth-grader should start making adjustments now so they can pay for education.”

Meanwhile, university students around the country are faced with financing school any way they can.

“It doesn’t seem fair that kids who work hard have debt,” Goodrich said. “For middle-class kids to get where they want to go, they have to start out life in the hole.”

Maggie Hessel-Mial welcomes comments at [email protected]