Students struggle in face of rising tuition, fees

With the recent increase in tuition at UNA and a federal cut in Pell Grants, students are finding it harder to finish their degrees without drowning in debt.     

Megan Kingsley and James Reatherford have been dating over a year and currently live together in Courtview Apartments on Pine Street finishing their degrees in secondary education and computer science, respectively. 

They said they are struggling to make ends meet.

Both have scholarships from UNA that pay full tuition. Kingsley is awarded a small Pell Grant, but Reatherford was recently bumped up an income range from working, and no longer qualifies. However, they both still have to take out loans each semester to pay fees, books and school supplies. Together, they are $7,400 in debt.

“I was lucky my first semester,” Kingsley said. “I had other scholarships from Tennessee, but after that, I had nothing.”

Their monthly bills are approximately $640.

Reatherford pays the rent, his half of the groceries and his personal expenses working at a gas station in Tennessee. Kingsley is unemployed and has to borrow money from her family to get by.

“Since I’ve been out of a job, I’ve had to borrow from my mother for the cable bill and my half of the groceries,” she said.

She had a work-study job as a tutor  last semester, but her employment was cut short.

“The budget ran dry and they had to let us all go early,” she said. “They did help me find a temporary job working at the baseball concession stand.”

Both are good students, scoring well on their ACTs and maintaining high averages to keep their current scholarships. The cost of college has come as a shock to them.

“I heard all my life if you make good grades in high school, college would be paid for,” she said.

On top of tuition and bills, Reatherford has an unfortunate cost. He has had a  congenital heart defect since birth and recently lost his state-funded insurance. He also does not qualify for unemployment.

“Legally, as an adult, if you can physically work, you can’t get that insurance,” Reatherford said. “If nothing else, I can get by on my dad’s insurance with co-pays.”

He is appealing to reinstate his insurance. If he loses, he’ll have to repay the money he’s gotten from the government.

With limited income, they are both careful with money. They plan out every meal they eat and rarely go out.

“We never eat out; even then, we split meals,” Kingsley said. “We have only seen two films this year.”

Even after taking out a credit card to pay for books this semester, Kingsley keeps a positive mind.

“We’re kind of lucky to have a safety net in our parents,” she said.

Fortunately for Kingsley and Reatherford, they’ve done one of the most crucial things in keeping college costs down, said Ben Baker, director of student financial services: sticking to their majors.

Baker said the biggest mistake students can make, especially when they rely on Pell Grant money, is switching majors.

“I think going forward, students will have to be careful planning their schedule,” he said. “Be sure to pick a major you are going to stick with. Switching between different majors is costly.”

Because Pell Grants only pay for so many hours, planning ahead is important to ensure that money doesn’t run out from switching between majors where some courses do not apply, Baker said.

This becomes more important for certain majors where more hours are needed to graduate.

He said UNA’s advisers should play a role in helping students.

Currently, 86 students have filed their 2012-2013 FAFSA and have no eligibility left in their Pell Grants, Baker said.

The next option for these students would be student loans, he said.

Unfortunately, Congress sets a limit on how much students can take out in loans, and many students who run out of Pell Grant money also run out of their loan eligibility, Baker said. If this is the case, students can pursue taking out private loans to finish their degrees.