Tuesday, March 9, 2010

College costs going sky-high

I have these recurring dreams.

They’re not identical every time, but they all have a similar theme. I am approaching the end of my final semester of college when I either have a final examination that “must” be passed or I realize I forgot to take some course that was required to graduation.

THEN, I WAKE up and realize that I either passed that exam or took that course and actually graduated, and that all of this happened 23 years ago.

In short, my college days are behind me. When I read news accounts of the financial problems being confronted by the state’s public university system and by colleges in general, I feel nothing but gratitude that I’m not trying to get a college education these days.

For while I understand that everything is more expensive these days (in terms of the actual cost printed on the price tag), I wonder at times if I would have been able to accomplish what I did back in the mid-1980s if I had to go through the same process now.

The cost of college has just become so high that I wonder how anyone is seriously expected to be capable of paying the tuition and other expenses without some form of outside financial aid. Then, I read accounts like a report Monday in the Chicago Sun-Times about how students this year are putting the rush on applying for financial aid out of fear if they wait too long, there won’t be anything left for them.

NOW AS I have written here on occasion, I am an alumnus of Illinois Wesleyan University in Bloomington, which is a private school that even when I was there was considered to have a higher-than-average tuition. I recall the bill for my freshman year being just over $10,000, and increasing every year by about $1,000 – which means my college education resulting in a bachelor of arts degree cost about $46,000.

In order to pay it, I had to rely heavily on those student loans – which means I was in debt for the first six years after I graduated. Considering that I also was a rookie news reporter-type in those years at times taking in a salary in the area of $190 per week, I wasn’t rich.

But I never had any real regrets, particularly once I actually graduated and saw for myself how the slightly-more-intense academic atmopshere of my alma mater actually made me better prepared for the workplace than those of my generational counterparts.

If I had gone to the same schools they went to, I would have been able to save money (I recall the total cost of attending a public university back in the mid-1980s was about $5,000, and I could have gotten away with paying about $1,000 if I had attended a public college while also living at home). But I think I got my money’s worth, even with the debt that meant I really didn’t start getting ahead in life financially until about the time I turned 27.

BUT THEN I read the Sun-Times account that reported 21 percent more students filing their financial aid applications early (as in during January and February instead of waiting until the last moment and filing in late spring).

The fear is that programs that provide financial aid will be short-funded this year, meaning less aid. Which means fewer students receiving aid.

I know if I had to go through the process today, it would not be the same. I wouldn’t be able to seriously consider taking on the type of debt that would be required to do now what I did then.

Looking at my alma mater, the price tag for the 2009-10 academic year was $41,788 (of which $33,808 was tuition alone). I’m sure that figure is going up for the 10-11 year. Even the public colleges that were supposedly the cheaper (more practical, their proponents will argue) alternative are getting way past the range of what I once paid for what was supposedly an elite education.

THE UNIVERSITY OF Illinois system has hinted tuition may have to take a 20 percent hike in order for the campuses in Urbana, Chicago and Springfield to cover their costs. The situation is similar at all colleges these days.

Now I know there are going to be some people who are going to want to send me a rant telling me that I am somehow being snobbish or elitist (that is, if they don’t use a few choice obscenities). I didn’t have to attend the school I did.. Neither I, nor anyone else, is entitled to that experience.

I realize that.

I was fortunate enough to receive a quality university education and get all the social perks that can accompany the academic experience. If I had to try to navigate the process these days, particularly without the help of financial assistance (which in my case was mostly loans that I ultimately repaid in full), I likely would have had to choose another route.

WHICH IS WHY I’m very thankful that my dreams of being back on campus and struggling with the anxieties of academia are in my past. Not only because of the cost, but also because I don’t think I could handle the stress of wondering if my senior project (in my case, a mediocre paper on the history of an alternative newspaper in Bloomington, Ill., that used to consider it a mission to publicly identify people who cooperated with undercover narcotics cops) was going to meet the standards of Professor Young.

Newspaper city editors, by comparison, are compassionate softies.


EDITOR’S NOTE: College isn’t cheap these days.I don’t see how anyone is expected seriously to pay the (http://www.suntimes.com/business/currency/2089498,CST-NWS-aid08.article) kind of tuition bills charged in the 21st Century.

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