Sari Lott started paying for college while she was still in high school.?The 19-year-old sophomore at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis earned a 4.1 GPA, was editor-in-chief of the yearbook, a drum major in the band and president of the French Club — all activities she thought would help her to get scholarships.

“I was at my school ’til, like, 9 o’clock at night,” she said, “and then I would come home and do homework for, like, an hour so that I could go to college for cheaper.”

But it wasn’t enough.

She works two jobs to pay for her books, living expenses and any tuition her scholarships don’t cover.

“It is really ridiculous to expect everybody to get a degree just to have a job that’s decent and then have (the cost) be so high that they can never possibly pay it off,” she said.

Lott is among thousands of Hoosier students who are struggling to pay for higher education. And the cost of a degree keeps rising.

Annual tuition and fees at Indiana’s four-year colleges and universities doubled between 2001 and 2011, rising to more than $7,000 from about $3,500, according to the Indiana Commission for Higher Education. At two-year colleges, costs increased to $3,900 from $2,200 — a 72 percent jump.

The number of people who have defaulted on federal student loans in Indiana also increased 35 percent over the last three years.

Some of the state’s four-year colleges are trying to come up with ways to make college more affordable.

But the cost has become so high that the Commission for Higher Education is pushing schools to help reduce student debt and make sure students graduate on time.

Beginning this year, the commission is asking schools to set annual targets for reducing the cost of a degree and undergraduate students’ average debt load at their campuses.

“We’re trying to ensure that more Indiana students can complete post-secondary credentials,” Commissioner Teresa Lubbers said, “and that they can do it at the lowest possible cost.”

Students living at home

Indiana students borrow $27,000 on average to pay for a degree, according to the commission, and they are looking for ways to cut their expenses.

Nick Essett, a senior at IUPUI, said he completed his freshman year at IU-Bloomington and then moved home to Indianapolis so he didn’t have to pay thousands for room and board. He said he’s still paying off the student loans he took out to pay for his freshman year at IU, but he won’t have to borrow any more to finish his degree in marketing and economics.

Fifty-one percent of students across the country live at home to save money, according to a study released earlier this year by Sallie Mae, one of the country’s largest student lenders.

Essett said his desire to be debt-free by the time he graduates was a big factor in his decision to transfer.

“My sister and her fianc?, all they talk about is how much loan payments are per month to pay back, and it really hindered their future aspirations,” Essett said, “so I’m thinking me coming out not having the debt, that’s an extra payment that won’t be coming out of my pockets as soon as I come out of college so I can start my life a little bit faster.”

According to the Sallie Mae study, 69 percent of students eliminate schools based on the cost.

Lott said she gave up on her dream school, New York University, because of its price tag.

“I chose not to go there because I have no idea what I want to do with my life, so I don’t know how much money I’m going to be making,” Lott said. “I don’t want to make a commitment to pay $300,000 worth of loans if I can never make that much money.”

More students, including those from high-income families, are turning to two-year colleges to complete their courses at a lower cost, according to the Sallie Mae study.

Enrollment at Ivy Tech Community College increased by about 61 percent from the 2006-07 school year to the 2010-11 school year.

The number of students who come from families with an annual income of $70,000 or higher has increased 34 percent during the last four years, according to data provided by Ivy Tech.

Tom Snyder, the school’s president, said it’s possible that the increase could be partly attributed to students seeking lower-cost options. He said Ivy Tech’s summer classes are popular with students who attend other schools because they can take classes, often for less money, and transfer the credit to the schools they attend full-time.

“We’re just really a great, flexible choice for a variety of reasons, affordability among them,” he said. “It’s a great opportunity to take advantage of.”

Universities reaching out

Other Indiana schools are trying to come up with ways to help students save.

“It’s one of the most important things on our collective mind,” IU spokesman Mark Land said. “We get it. If it’s a concern to our students, it’s a concern to us.”

IU gave in-state students a 25 percent discount on tuition for summer classes this year. It gave out-of-state students a discount in the same dollar amount. Land said that saved students about $12 million this summer, and the university plans to do it again next year.

The university also created a new office to help students manage their debt and be smart about borrowing.

The Office of Student Financial Literacy will identify students who have borrowed large amounts of money to go to school and make sure they actually need all that they’re borrowing, Land said. The office also will reach out to students who are struggling to graduate on time.

“The goal here is to help students better understand what they’re getting into when they take on debt,” Land said.

Both IU and Butler University have increased financial aid to students.

Last year, IU’s aid topped $110 million, which is double what it was five years ago, Land said. Butler increased the financial aid it gives students by about $4 million this year and gave out the highest amount of aid — more than $51 million — in the school’s history, said Tom Weede, vice president of enrollment management.

“We know the economy is tough,” he said, “so we made larger offers of financial aid, scholarships to students.”

Higher prices can make private schools like Butler a tough sell to cost-conscious students. Butler encourages students to apply to the university and see what kind of aid they can get before ruling out the possibility of attending, Weede said.

Purdue University couples financial aid with academic support through its Purdue Promise program to help low-income students stay in school and graduate on time, said A. Dale Whittaker, vice provost for undergraduate academic affairs.

“We know if you give students dollars, but don’t surround them with academic support, they’re at risk of not finishing,” Whittaker said.

The support programs have helped boost retention rates for low-income students, he said.

Indiana State University is now offering a “graduation guarantee”: If students meet certain criteria and still don’t graduate in four years, they can take their remaining classes for free. The program began this fall.

State is looking ahead

But the Commission for Higher Education is asking schools to do more.

Its goal is to make sure 60 percent of Hoosier adults have a college degree by 2025, and cost is a significant barrier. About one-third of Indiana adults have degrees now.

“This issue of affordability, I think, is going to continue to be an important issue going forward,” Lubbers said. “It’s certainly a driving principle behind what we’re doing here.”

The commission set recommended caps on tuition and fee increases for each of the state’s public schools. But most schools, including Ball State University and the flagship campuses of IU and Purdue, exceeded those caps this year and in 2011, according to the commission’s data.

However, Lubbers said, most schools have cooperated with the commission on its “Reaching Higher, Achieving More” initiatives, which, in addition to setting targets to reduce the cost of degrees, include developing a common set of general education requirements so students can transfer more easily, and publicly reporting graduates’ job placement rates and average salaries.

The schools are working with the commission to create strategies for making that happen, Lubbers said, and more details of the plan could be finalized this fall.

Essett, the IUPUI senior, said he hopes that, in addition to making tuition more affordable, schools reduce fees for related expenses, like parking. Professors also should require students to buy only the books they will need and try to select cheaper ones, he said.

Even though Lott, the IUPUI sophomore, agrees that the cost of higher education has gotten too high, she said schools aren’t entirely to blame for students’ debt. She said students and their families need to consider their budges before picking a school.

“College doesn’t have to put you in debt,” she said. “You just need to choose a school that you know you can afford.”

 

Source:?Carrie Ritchie – IndyStar.com

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