Mike Harrison relaxed in his duplex after work on a recent Thursday night. Friends wandered through his front door, making plans for the weekend. Many were returning home. Harrison, however, was not. He would spend the weekend working at Home Depot, his part-time job, so he can pay for college.
Harrison’s case is not unique. The decrease in state appropriations for higher education and rising educational fees make it difficult for low-income students to afford a college degree, MU leaders say.
From fiscal year 1998 to fiscal 2003, MU has seen a 43 percent decline — 334 students — in financial aid applications from students of families with an annual income of less than $24,000, according to numbers from the student financial aid office.
“The issue here, and this is almost the standard issue everywhere, is that a growing number of the students in the K-12 pipeline that are headed for college are low-income students, but a shrinking share of such students are being seen at the state flagship schools,” said Tom Mortenson, an independent higher education analyst based in Iowa.
These numbers do not include students whose expected family contribution to education is determined by the government to automatically be zero. The number of such students, regarded as the most needy, has dropped by two students, or 1 percent, from fiscal 1998 to fiscal 2003, according to financial aid.
Applications up from families earning more than $60,000
At the same time, there has been a 73 percent increase — 2,573 students — in applications from students of families with incomes upward of $60,000, as well as an increase in overall enrollment at the university, according to financial aid.
MU is studying the dynamics that play into a decrease in low-income financial aid applications.
“When we saw those figures, we became very concerned,” said Ann Korshgen, vice provost for enrollment management. “What it’s saying to us — it appears to be saying to us — essentially students from lower incomes are not applying to MU like they did in the past.”
It is impossible to tell for sure how many low-income students are enrolled at the university because family income only becomes known if a student applies for financial aid.
The trend, apparent throughout the UM system, is nationwide, said Joe Camille, MU’s director of student financial aid. For example, a January report by the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education estimated that in the fall of 2003 at least 250,000 prospective students could not afford higher education in large part because of rising tuition.
Dropping low-income financial aid applications concerns MU
Korschgen said it is clearly a concern to MU that low-income financial aid application rates are dropping, but within Missouri, MU does not target high-income students. In fact, she said, there are many recruitment programs in place to bring in low-income students.
“Right now, we visit schools where there are a large number of low-income students and bus them over, or up, to MU to visit and get a sense of the institution as a welcoming institution that they could attend,” Korschgen said. “But we realize that those efforts may fall short of encouraging the low-income high-ability students if we don’t have the financial aid to support their attendance.”
MU just recently began to look at low-income enrollment statistics, following last year’s 19.8 percent increase in educational fees, or tuition, for the 2003-2004 school year. The next school year will see a 7.5 percent increase in educational fees, or an extra $219 per semester based on an average 15 credit hours.
“We have been hearing from counselors and others that low-income, high-ability students were reluctant to apply to MU because of the costs,” Korschgen said.
State cut $158 million over three years from UM budget
The increase in educational fees stems from reduced state appropriations. Over the past two years, the state has cut its funding to higher education by 14 percent. The UM system’s budget shrunk by $158 million over the past three years as a result of these cuts and withholdings.
Rising fees make it harder for students like Harrison, a sophomore at MU, to stay in school. The youngest of six children, Harrison is on his own for his education — like his siblings before him.
“That 20 percent spike in tuition basically hits me directly. That 600 bucks is two months rent each semester,” Harrison said, referring to the tuition increase for the fall 2003 semester.
Combined with a stationary financial aid amount, the increase of $32.20 per credit hour meant that Harrison could only afford to be a part-time student last fall and spend the rest of the week working at Home Depot. He returned this semester as a full-time student, thanks to a $1,200 loan from his sister and brother-in-law, and continues to work 20 to 25 hours a week.
While Harrison was able to remain at MU through a decent job and the help of family members, other students have not been so lucky.
“We think that some students who would have attended the University of Missouri are choosing to attend the regional colleges and universities in Missouri,” Camille said. “Some students who would have attended the regional colleges and universities have decided to attend the community colleges.”
The rising cost of a Missouri education meant Jon Wilk, whose family makes less than $36,000 a year, had to drop out of MU. An out-of-state student, Wilk, who comes from Wisconsin, said it has long been his goal to attend MU, and a lack of funds was not going to stand in his way.
He arrived on campus in the fall of 2002 to major in journalism, with half of his tuition and housing costs paid by financial aid. By the second semester of that year, he had run out of money and could not afford to stay. Even if Wilk had stayed that winter, the rising educational fees would have made it much more difficult to come up with money for the next year and then the year after that.
“I expected (tuition) to go up, but not that much,” said Wilk. “For an out-of-state student, it’s hard enough to pay all the extra fees.”
Wilk moved home, joined the National Guard to pay for his education and returned to Columbia in the fall of 2003 with the plan of taking classes again that winter. Last November, however, his unit was activated and he is now serving in Louisiana. He plans to return to MU when his deployment is up.
MU working to develop new scholarship program
Faced with increased educational fees again next fall, MU has increased its financial aid for undergraduate students by 9.5 percent, or $2.3 million more than the 2003-2004 school year base of $25 million. Additionally, MU is working to develop a scholarship program for high-ability, low-income students.
“We’re investigating all different ways that we have to assist students,” Camille said. “We’ve taken one step this fall and that is to increase our amount that we put into undergraduate need-based and scholarship-based aid by more than we’ve increased tuition.”
The scholarship program, which is still in the planning stages, was initiated by Brady Deaton, executive vice chancellor and provost.
“We want to send a message to all Missouri students who are capable of success at MU that we want them here,” Deaton said. “And we want to assure students with financial need that we will do everything we can to help them obtain the necessary resources to come here.”