student debt
To finance higher education in the US, students need to be aware of more than just student debt. Here's the latest data they should know of. Source: Shutterstock

Money is a big issue for college students in the US today. From textbooks to food to student debt, it’s a fact of life for many that affording higher education here can be an uphill task.

So much so that an entire book has been published on how paying for college is changing the American family as we know it. Dr Caitlin Zoom, an associate professor of social and cultural analysis at New York University, has authored a book titled “Indebted: How Families Make College Work at Any Cost”. In an essay adapted for the New York Timesshe wrote:

“Paying for college, however, is taking a toll on American families in ways that are more profound and less appreciated than even the financial cost conveys. It has fundamentally changed the experience of being middle class in this country.”

Here are five facts and figures that detail the financial burden of those attending college and university in the US today:

1. Students are working more hours while still in school.

One in four full-time students hold full-time jobs and nearly half (45 percent) work at least 30 hours a week, according to the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce analysis of data from the National Center on Education.

For many poor students, the decision to work wasn’t a choice. Sometimes, missing class to go take on an extra shift could be the only way these students are able to eat. Crystal Cos, a junior at the University of Missouri told CNBC: “In my first two years at college, I’ve had to make a decision that my high school self could not have imagined: Go to class or be able to afford to eat.”

“This is the reality that I, and many students who come from low-income families, face.”

2. Tuition fees are at an all-time high

Over the last 20 years, the average cost of tuition and fees for private and public national universities have risen significantly for both in-state and out-of-state students. National Universities refer to schools that are often research-oriented and offer Bachelor’s, Master’s and doctoral degrees. Data from US News show in-state tuition and fees at public and private national universities have ballooned by 221 percent and 154 percent respectively.

At the University of Chicago, it was reported that the Class of 2023 will pay approximately US$80,000 (including room and board) for one year of study, making it the first university in the US to charge that much for tuition.

3. Borrowers owed nearly US$30,000 on average

According to an annual report from the nonprofit group the Institute for College Access and Success, the average burden for indebted college graduates is now close to US$30,000, an increase of two percent over the previous year’s graduating class. In 2018, two in three undergraduates from public college or private nonprofit had student loans.

Persis Yu, director of the Student Loan Borrower Assistance Project at the National Consumer Law Center, told the New York Times, the current level of student debt was too high, even with the slowed growth.

“The numbers are still going up, and that’s concerning,” she said. “US$30,000 is not sustainable.”

4. They’re struggling to pay rent

Living off-campus, without the frills and convenience of campus facilities, used to be a cheaper alternative for students looking to save some dollars. Not anymore, according to data from the National Center for Education Statistics analysed by The Hechinger Report.

Off-campus room and board costs increased 24 percent at public four-year universities after inflation between 2000 and 2017. “Rent-burdened” is a term used to describe those paying more than 30 percent of household income toward rent. In 2017, more than half (59 percent) of homes with an undergraduate or graduate student as the head of the household met that definition.

It’s a situation that punishes students who are unable to meet this increase in costs. They would be forced to live in less expensive areas further away from campus or in more extreme cases, face housing insecurity or go homeless.

5. They don’t know where their next meal will come from

Food insecurity is a problem that is increasingly affecting college students in the US today. It’s hard to access affordable food, causing many to skip meals and having to worry about whether they’ll be able to have their next meal or not. For a three-meal-a-day dining contract, students have to fork out US$18.75 per day, or about US$4,500 per term. This costs more than the US$11-a-day average reported by the Bureau of Labor Statistics for a single American, according to The Hechinger Report’s Tara Garcia Mathewson.

In one national survey, more than one-third of university students reported they were food insecure in the 30 days preceding the survey.

“Their grades suffer, their test scores appear to be lower, and overall their chances of graduating are slimmer,” Sara Goldrick-Rab, a professor of higher education policy at Temple University and study co-author told NPR. “They can barely escape the conditions of poverty long enough to complete their degrees.”

It doesn’t help that textbooks are expensive too. Textbook costs have increased by more than 1,000 percent since the 1970s – the College Board suggests students set aside US$1,200 a year for books and other course materials.

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