The spotlight on Occupy Wall Street may have dimmed in recent months, but college students across the country are still waging their own battles against the rapidly rising cost of higher education.
On Thursday, dozens of students at San Diego State University in California, where state higher education funding has fallen 35% since 2007, protested tuition hikes in front of the school’s student union.
Since 2002, San Diego State’s tuition has nearly tripled to $7,000 per semester. Earlier this year, student fees were raised by $500. According to the College Board, public four-year tuition has increased 66% since 2003, the earliest year for which data is available. During the rally, attendees toted containers of “Cup Noodles,” the kind of cheap fare often associated with cash-strapped college students.
The pain of increasing tuition been ongoing. College costs have risen 12-fold in the last three decades, and following the Great Recession, state and federal funding for public institutions was cut nationwide. According to a recent report by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a left-leaning think tank, 48 states invest less in college education now than they did before the recession.
When state budgets are squeezed, more of the cost of college is passed on to students and their parents. Meanwhile, American household earnings have barely budged over the same period. As a result, the average college graduate will enter the workforce weighed down by $29,400 worth of student debt. More than one-quarter of today’s 38 million student debtors is strapped with $50,000 or more.
Tuition or roof over your head
“When I got to SDSU, I thought I was living the dream and I had done everything right but it wasn’t the case,” says Sergio Juarez, 23, a senior majoring in engineering. “All the money I’d saved was barely enough to pay for tuition and pay for housing on a month-to-month basis.”
Due to some issues gathering financial information from his parents, Juarez wasn’t able to receive federal student aid. Rather than take out student loans, he paid the bulk of his $4,000-per-semester tuition with funds saved from a summer internship and worked three part-time jobs to cover his $850 in monthly dorm fees. By the end of his first year, his savings completely drained, he had to make a choice — pay for his second year of tuition or pay for housing. In the end, he chose to cover his tuition and spent a semester sleeping on friends’ couches and in his car.
“Trying to get by every day was a nightmare,” says Juarez, who was invited to speak at Thursday’s rally. “People don’t appreciate things like a refrigerator until they don’t have one. It took an emotional toll on me. Nobody really knows what you’re going through.”
Things for Juarez turned around this year when he was awarded an academic scholarship from the university that would give him a free ride in his senior year. He’s working one job now, putting his engineering studies to use at the city’s water systems department.
“Now I feel like I’m in a position where I can speak out about these kinds of things that are happening to students on campus,” he says. “There needs to be support programs to help people that are in these situations.”
Relying on food pantries
More students have needed to rely on support services to get by during the school year. Since 2011, the College and University Food Bank Alliance, an organization supporting food pantries at U.S. colleges, has started 46 local campus chapters in 21 states and delivered more than 235,000 pounds of food.
Alwiyah Shariff, 25, has been working with the Ohio Student Association since 2012 to organize protests against tuition spikes at colleges throughout the state.
Shariff would be a senior at Ohio State University this year, but she took time off of school to work full-time and avoid racking up more student loans. Tuition and fees at the university top $10,000 per year.
“It would just feel like I was putting myself into more of a hole,” she says.
The OSA led a statewide protest in April after more than half the state’s 14 public universities proposed or enacted tuition hikes, a move that administrators blamed on declining enrollment and state funding. Around the same time, they launched a social media campaign called #StudentDebtSucks, which featured photos of students sharing their struggles to pay for college.
Their next event is slated for Halloween on Oct. 31, when they will organize a “zombie walk” on the campus of Kent State University. The timing is crucial — citizens will be hitting the polls a week later for midterm elections and the organization hopes to get more students to participate.They’ve had some success so far. In response to tuition protests, Kent State created a committee on college accessibility and retention and gave students a chance to be involved.
Other protests from college students have been smaller affairs. University of Utah student Luq Mughal made headlines in January when he paid his $2,000 tuition bill with a suitcase stuffed with $1 bills.
“I had to pull some serious strings to even get everything to pay for my tuition this semester, and I wanted it to feel worthwhile,” Mugha told his campus newspaper. “I decided that ... I would feel a little better if I did it like that."
Jake Stevens, a student from Kettering University in Flint, Mich., pulled a similar move when he paid $3,350 for his term tuition in singles earlier this year. Stevens could only afford the annual $37,000 tuition at his private university if he went without housing. Like Juarez, he's been couchsurfing and sleeping in his car throughout the school year.
“[Paying in $1 bills] was my way of silently protesting the cost,” Stevens told Yahoo Finance.
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