Students must have a strategy to pay the costs of college

Second of a two-part series.

Last Sunday: Is the price right? University of Alabama tuition rises, but so does enrollment.

Two weeks into the 2017 school year, University of Alabama sophomore chemical engineering student Daniel Stadler sat behind one of the information desks in the Ferguson Student Center as students made their way to and from the food courts on the other side of the building.

The 19-year-old from Orlando works on campus to help cover the cost of his college education. Stadler’s strategy includes a combination of scholarships, help from his parents, loans, and working.

“This year, I’m actually working two jobs and living off of campus,” he said.

For most students, a loan or scholarship by itself likely won’t cover the cost of attending college, and the strategies for tackling the costs vary, predictably, with individual circumstances.

The university estimates currently it will cost students about $30,000-$48,600 on average to attend, depending on whether they come from Alabama or outside the state. Tuition by itself is only about half of the cost of being a student at Alabama. Tuition for out-of-state students like Stadler is more than twice the rate on average than their in-state peers. 

“There are multiples of different avenues that a family may take to paying for their expenses here. Many have planned, some have not. Many have options, personal financial options,” UA Director of Student Financial Aid Helen Allen said.

With his SAT scores, Stadler said tuition is covered by scholarships. Working and loans help pay for rent and groceries.

The cost of attending UA has steadily grown in the last 20 years as tuition rates have increased each year. The hikes have been justified by university officials who point to declining state funding and growing operating expenses, including providing a richer experience on campus for a student body that has grown to more than 37,000.

“We are very sensitive to being focused on those things that students are attracted to. This campus has gone from a state flagship university to a national flagship university,” UA System Chancellor Ray Hayes said.

Hayes and others say they are also sensitive about the cost.

“That is a really, really tough thing we wrestle with,” said Finis St. John, a member of the system’s board of trustees. “Another thing that is important to me, at least when we are looking at it, is if we compare that to schools that aren’t growing, they cost as much or more, so we are not out of line.”

There was $418.2 million in scholarships and financial aid awarded through UA’s financial aid office in fiscal year 2016. Stadler thinks UA does a good job of providing aid.

“They give a lot of scholarships,” he said.

A strategy for making ends meet

Junior Trip Taylor’s planning began in high school in Mobile. His strategy for college was studying to make good grades in high school to earn all the scholarships he could. He also saves money from working during an engineering co-op.

He earned a UA presidential scholarship, a state scholarship and an engineering scholarship.

“Between the three of those, I am almost covered,” he said.

The presidential scholarship covers tuition, and the engineering scholarship almost covers all of his dorm and food costs.

“After that, it is just about keeping those scholarships,” he said.

Sophomore Rainy Bradford was waiting for a bus on the Quad on the fifth day of classes this semester. The 19-year-old nursing student from Columbus, Mississippi, was drawn to UA’s academics, but there was also the appeal of a large campus with lots of amenities and a championship football brand that swept her up in the enthusiasm.

“My freshman year was good,” she said. “Really expensive.”

She is paying for college with federal loans she has taken out, federal loans borrowed on her behalf by her parents, and grants.

“Pretty much all loans except private,” she said.

UA students like Bradford received about $184 million in federal aid last year. Typically, loans or grants by themselves will not cover the cost of attendance, Allen said.

“Students and parents need to be aware that they need to plan ahead,” Allen said.

The federal aid available for UA students includes Pell grants, supplemental education grants, work study programs and student loans. Based on the needs assessment in their application for federal student aid, students can receive as much as $5,500 as freshman, $6,500 as sophomores and $7,500 as upperclassmen. Pell grants provide a maximum of $5,920 annually currently. At UA, the maximum supplemental education grants award is $1,000, Allen said.

UA, which contributes 25 percent, gets a federal match to fund 750-800 students for work study, she said. The awards range from $2,200 to $3,600, Allen said.

Bradford said she enjoyed the amenities of campus as a freshman. The variety of dining options on campus was impressive. But she also estimated life as a sophomore was about $10,000 cheaper.

“As you start to see the cost, you really don’t see it as all that important,” she said of all the amenities.

Coping with the college experience

How much undergraduates pay is partially related to their class year. Freshman, with some exceptions, are required to live on campus and purchase a freshman meal plan. The requirement is not unique to UA. The residency requirement is common in higher education, as officials argue retention rates and outcomes improve if students spend their first year on campus.

“All of those things help them cope with this new experience because they are still maturing. They are still developing as an individual, so I think that when you look at what the campuses offer for housing and what the kids get, it is more than anything they could get living off of campus,” Vice Chancellor of Finance and Administration Dana Keith said.

Taylor understands the argument for the enriched college experience.

“Living arrangements are a big deal that people tend to look for,” the 20-year-old said while sitting in the food court of the Ferguson Center.

People want their own space and individual rooms. Parents like the idea that their children will have a space where they are secure, Taylor said.

“Having lots of food is a plus because things aren’t monotonous,” he said.

He also appreciates a good recreation center.

“It’s a work–life balance,” he said.

Stadler sees the pros and cons of living on campus. Everything is within walking distance on campus, but it is cheaper to live off campus and there is more freedom, he said.

“I think all that is pretty good. It forces you to live on campus and make friends,” he said of the freshman residency requirement. “Those groups of people you embed with, you take off of campus next year.”

But Stadler estimated his rent as a sophomore is about $8,000 cheaper this year off campus, though he noted the cost of living on campus included utilities and food. Based on his scholarship, UA also provided a reimbursement this year since he is not living on campus anymore. The university provided about $13.8 million in reimbursements in 2016.

Stadler’s rent for the year is about $8,000. Student residential rates range from $5,714 to $10,800 for the 10-month academic year that runs from August to April. A freshman meal plan is $3,674 annually.

The median gross rent in Tuscaloosa, based on the most recent U.S. Census data, was $785. The figure includes rent, and the estimated average monthly cost of utilities. The most recent data on the Tuscaloosa market from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development reported an average rent of $730.

The value of college

While the cost has increased, the three still say the benefits of college make it worth the expense.

Stadler is the son of engineers who worked for NASA. He said he was pushed toward college. But he also sees it as part of growing up. He wants to be able to support himself and a family comfortably.

“Going away to college was specifically the investment I made,” he said.

He could have gone to schools closer to home, but he close to leave Florida as part of the experience.

“It really forces you to find yourself and find your interest,” he said.

Bradford is in a high-demand field.

“I see the investment,” she said.

Whether college was in the future wasn’t really a question, Taylor said.

“If I wanted to make use of the potential I knew I had, I needed to come here and get the tools I needed,” he said.

 

Reach Ed Enoch at ed.enoch@tuscaloosanews.com or 205-722-0209.