Generation debt

Tuition at the U of M has doubled this decade. How can the average student expect to pay for school - let alone pay back the increasing debt?

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Tom Zakrzewicz walked to class over the Washington Street bridge at the University of Minnesota recently with a classmate. Zakrzewicz pays for college by working part-time at UPS, tuition reimbursement from UPS and he is in the Army reserves.

Photo: Renee Jones Schneider, Star Tribune

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To pay for school, Tom Zakrzewicz has worked most weeknights, unloaded hundreds of trucks and will likely fight in a war.

Still, the University of Minnesota junior expects to graduate owing more than $25,000.

Zakrzewicz has held a job with UPS since his first day on campus. On top of his hourly wage, it provides $3,000 a year for tuition. He later joined the Army, adding another $5,000 a year.

But for his freshman year, he borrowed $15,000. "Really, right away, right out of the gates, I was digging a deep hole," said Zakrzewicz, who hopes to be a high school English teacher.

His predicament is becoming the rule, not the exception, on college campuses in Minnesota and across the country.

Student debt is soaring -- it has risen 157 percent in the state over the past decade -- as college costs advance at a rate far exceeding family income. Undergraduate tuition at the University of Minnesota, for example, has doubled this decade.

Next fall, for the first time in the University of Minnesota's history, students will shoulder more of the university's budget than the state will. As student borrowing swells, and state aid to campuses contracts, middle-class families are feeling the squeeze most.

That is prompting tough new questions about how colleges and universities are managing their budgets. Rising tuition costs and record student debt also are leading many American families to conclude that a college education is slipping out of reach -- even as they admit it's more essential than ever.

"Nothing is too shocking in terms of student loans," said Paul Raymond, a Lutheran Social Service of Minnesota financial counselor who advises students at the U. "It's not a surprise to have 60-plus thousand dollars in [student] loans."

Even before the recession hit hard this year, many families were straining to pay college bills. In 1999-2000, net college costs -- tuition, room and board minus financial aid -- equaled 18 percent of an average family's income. Last year, they devoured 25 percent.

Now job losses and wage cuts will make tuition increases -- like the 7.5 percent hike the U is projecting -- even harder to take.

In a recent survey by the nonprofit Public Agenda, 67 percent said many who qualify for college can't get there, up from 57 percent who felt that way in 2003 and 45 percent in 1998.

Those numbers "reveal a chipping away of public support for higher education and a growing suspicion about how well colleges and universities use the money they have," the report warns.

Minnesota residents attending the Twin Cities campus now pay $10,756 a year in tuition and fees. (With room, board and books, that grows to about $21,000.) More students are taking out bigger loans. The average 2008 graduate left with $20,897 in debt.

"Everyone realizes it's not affordable," said Ryan Kennedy, a U senior and board member for the student-led Minnesota Public Interest Research Group. Government officials and university administrators have switched, he said, to talking about "college accessibility" instead of affordability.

At a recent town-hall-style meeting, University of Minnesota Provost Thomas Sullivan called the transfer of a bulk of the costs of running the university from state funding to student tuition "a historical paradigm shift, and it's not a good one. ... Shame on Minnesota."

There is also mounting pressure on universities to hold down costs. Questions about expenses are becoming more pointed: Why build that multi-million-dollar athletic complex? Why pay your president more than $400,000? Why spend so much on administration?

There's a message behind those questions -- that there is less patience for states and colleges to handle this recession by hiking tuition. Again.

The price tag

Colleges everywhere have to make their case to the public. The case for the U is trickier because Minnesota is what's called a "high tuition, high aid" state. That model brings schools more money and, arguably, keeps college affordable through increased financial aid.

About 88 percent of students attending the state's private, nonprofit colleges and universities receive at least one scholarship or grant they won't have to pay back. At the U, 60 percent do, the financial aid office said.

The U is doing a better job helping students pay for school than ever before, officials say. It offers free tuition to Minnesota students from the lowest income levels -- those eligible for federal Pell grants, whose families typically earn less than $40,000 a year. They call it Founders Free Tuition, and 12 percent of undergrads get it.

"That's a deliberate strategy to protect students," said U President Robert Bruininks, who has pushed scholarship fundraising to new highs during his seven years in charge.

In 2008, for the first time, the school gave more of its own grant money to undergraduates than the state and federal government did together.

"If you talk to federal policy makers, what they'll say is, you should keep tuition as low as possible, because we're providing all the grant money that students need through the Pell Grant program," said Peter Zetterberg, senior analyst for undergraduate education. "They're totally unaware of the fact that we provide this much scholarship support to our students."

But there's a trade-off. "Low-income students are maybe better off than they've ever been," Zetterberg said. "But it's the middle-income that's not."

The U is planning a middle-income scholarship program to ease that squeeze.

Just a few months ago, Melissa Turner, 19, was a freshman at the University of Minnesota. But a semester into school, without financial help from her "very middle-class" parents, she had taken out almost $10,000 in loans. "It's too much," she said.

Turner decided to move back to her hometown of Winona, where she had a better-paying job than the one she had at a convenience store in the U's Coffman Union. And there's a cheaper school: Winona State University. There, in-state tuition and fees are $7,496  compared with $10,756 at the University of Minnesota.

"The U has all kinds of scholarships, but they come with all kinds of stipulations," she said last fall. "There's nothing just for ... for me, I guess. Nothing for your average college student."

According to the federal formula used to determine financial aid needs, a Minnesota student whose family made $79,000, the 2007 median income, would have been expected to contribute $9,612 toward the $21,144 cost of attendance in 2008-09, which includes tuition, fees, books and housing.

Schools trying to balance high tuition with high aid are using "a model that's broken," said Patrick Callan, founding president of the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education, based in California. "The aid never grows as fast as the cost, so we're always falling behind. Soon, middle-income people start thinking they need some help, too. You can't do high tuition, high aid without squeezing the middle really hard."

Sliding state funding

State funding used to provide half of the University of Minnesota's revenues. Now, it's closer to a quarter. As the state's share slides, the students' share grows.

In 2000, the U received $583 million in its base appropriation from the state -- more than twice what it made from tuition. But this year, with a cut in state funding likely, and that projected 7.5 percent tuition increase by the U, those lines will cross.

"The state of Minnesota has become a minority shareholder in its own university," lamented Sen. Ron Latz, DFL-St. Louis Park, at a recent legislative hearing.

House and Senate education committees are taking their deepest look yet at how the University of Minnesota spends its money, questioning new programs and faculty compensation.

Sen. Claire Robling, R-Jordan, the ranking minority member of the higher education committee, believes the U should tap reserves, cut compensation and narrow its mission before raising tuition. Another hefty hike "is intolerable, especially because it's already gone up so much," she said.

In 1968-69, a student could have clocked 6.2 hours a week at minimum wage to earn enough to cover annual tuition and fees of $385, according to the U. This year, a student would have to work 33.9 hours a week at minimum wage to cover tuition and fees.

Those who try pay a different price. Whenever biochemistry Prof. Paul Siliciano talks with a student having trouble in class, his first question is: How many hours are you working? "It used to be 10," he said. "Then it got to be 15. Now it's 20, 25."

On a recent afternoon, Bri Gamblain cheerily rang up customers lined up half a dozen deep at Harvard Market Square, while outside, throngs of students bustled to class.

Gamblain wishes she were one of them. The 19-year-old from Prior Lake stopped attending the U this semester when she couldn't pay her $3,000 debt to the school. The U froze her account, which barred her from registering for classes.

"It's heartbreaking, as much as everybody says they hate school," she said during a short break from the register.

Too pricey to return

Gamblain represents a warning sign.

Nationally, the percentage of freshmen who return to the same four-year research university for their sophomore year is at a record low, according to data from American College Testing (ACT).

Meanwhile, the percentage of returning sophomores at less-expensive two-year public schools is at its highest. The numbers tell some higher education observers that students are being priced out of four-year colleges.

"When I look specifically at the decline in the private sector and other pricier schools and the increase in the community colleges, that's when I think 'economy,'" Wes Habley, ACT's principal associate, said.

The U's numbers have stayed stable or grown; it has a record number of applicants for next fall's freshman class. But officials are keeping a close eye on the number of students who don't come back.

When Gamblain enrolled at the U two years ago, her parents earned just enough that she didn't qualify for a great financial aid package. Yet they didn't make enough to fund her education. The Perpich Center for the Arts graduate took out about $17,000 in private loans to subsidize her freshman year. With no co-signer, Gamblain was saddled with a 15 percent interest rate.

She took out all the federal loans for which she qualified for the first semester of her sophomore year, about $8,000. Grants totaled about $700. She was still $3,000 short.

Gamblain wants to pay the $3,000 by this fall so she can re-enroll. If she can re-enroll, she'll borrow more. If she can't enroll, she'll be forced to start making payments on the $17,000 she borrowed her freshman year. "It's a cycle," she said in exasperation.

She thought she was being realistic about the cost of her education.

"I understand it's going to be expensive," she said. "It's looking a little more impossible than it should be."

jross@startribune.com • 612-673-7168 cxiong@startribune.com • 612-673-4391

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    $10,756 tuition and fees $976 books and supplies $7,280 room and board $132 transportation $2,000 personal/miscellaneous $21,144 total cost of attendance
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