The state's nine colleges and universities are trying to take the sting out of rising tuition and fees by alerting students to financial aid resources. But most of the money to be had comes with an interest bite officials can do nothing about.
There are a few more scholarships, and college presidents are rounding up more. Federal funding for grants to low-income students is up considerably. But the fact is, loans to pay for college still make up two-thirds of the financial aid available to the state's 126,000 students.
About 15 years ago, according to state System of Higher Education figures, loans accounted for just a third of student aid; grants, work study and scholarships made up the rest.
Students have been borrowing more and more money ever since. Ten years ago, the average debt by the senior year for those students who borrowed money was $6,900. In 1999 it was almost twice that at $13,300. Most take at least three times as long to pay off school debt as they do to get a bachelor's degree.
"That is why higher education never takes raising tuition and fees lightly," said Pamela Atkinson, a member of the state Board of Regents and a member of a special task force on tuition and financial aid. "When you start adding all those factors up, you have students dropping classes or even dropping out. We used to just hear about low-income students, but I'm hearing from a lot of middle-income students lately, especially those who don't get a lot of support from parents."
Tuition increases are due in part to the Legislature's "user fee" approach to higher education. Tuition must account for 25 percent of the total revenue needed to pay for faculty members' and staff compensation approved by the Legislature.
Lawmakers aren't blind to the need for financial aid. They appropriated just over $2 million for next year to help offset tuition increases, although a fourth of that is a one-time appropriation. Students say, however, that it takes $400,000 in additional student aid to make up every percentage point increase in tuition. Based on this year's 5.5 percent systemwide increase plus tuition surcharges at five of the schools, that's about twice as much as they got.
While federal financial aid has been increased under federal Pell and other grant programs, only about 20 percent of students who qualify will get a grant. More than half of the students in Utah qualify for the aid.
College and university presidents and other administrators say they realize that the ripple effect of tuition and fee increases is much stronger these days. Those increases not only add to the basic sticker price of an education, students take longer to get through school and they compound the amount several times with interest payments on loans.
Atkinson said a lot of students combine loans with jobs. Many have half- or full-time jobs and full class loads.
At $8 per hour and working 20 hours per week, a student must work 4 1/2 months just to pay tuition and fees at the U. When all costs are taken into account — even though some living expenses such as food, housing and transportation would be paid whether or not someone is in school — the total cost for next school year for a resident, full-time undergraduate at the U. living on campus is $8,800.
A lot of students pay as they go. "And that works, up to a point," said Gail Chalmers Norris, associate commissioner of higher education over financial aid. "But most students would do well to borrow what they need to get through school, finish as soon as they can, get into the workplace and pay it off."
Loans aren't necessarily a bad thing, Norris said. Most students do pay them back, even the ones who initially default.
Where students get into trouble is overconsuming because they can, he said. "And many get marketed to beat heck with credit card offers, and they get stuck. And that can be a little like getting a loan to buy a car that breaks down before you get it home."
Presidents promised regents at a mid-March meeting in St. George that they would do their best to raise awareness, as well as funds, for student aid.
"It's a struggle that I think we don't sometimes appreciate," Atkinson said.