Growing tuition gap has students struggling

During the summer months, many college students will furiously work one job — perhaps two — to save

SEATTLE — During the summer months, many college students will furiously work one job — perhaps two — to save the money they’ll need to get through the next nine months of school.

Nothing new about that.

What has changed in the past four years is the yawning gap between the money students can earn over the summer and what they’ll need to pay their living expenses and tuition.

It’s a gap some middle-class students, in particular, are finding increasingly tough to navigate because they are caught between two financial realities: Their family incomes are too high for them to get financial aid but too low to pay for much — or sometimes any — of their schooling.

“People tell me you used to be able to work one job, the entire summer, and cover your entire education,” said Stephan Yhann, a 21-year-old political science and journalism major at the University of Washington who worked two jobs last summer. “I’m not sure how long ago that was — I have a hard time believing it.”

In just five years, as state funding for higher education has plummeted, average undergraduate tuition at Washington state’s two research universities has increased by 85 percent.

“We’re on the cusp of creating a higher-education model in this state that only works for the very wealthy and the very poor,” said state Sen. Michael Baumgartner, R-Spokane.

The steep increase has also made it more difficult for working students to compete for increasingly important unpaid internships, research appointments or study abroad.

University of Washington sophomore Christine Xiao is putting herself through school. Last summer, she worked as an unpaid intern for a startup company, but she can’t afford to do that again.

The geography and informatics major is working two jobs, around 55 hours a week, this summer — one on campus and the other as a Seattle lifeguard.

“I had originally wanted to study abroad, but after looking at it for about 10 minutes, I thought, no way, it’s not possible,” said Xiao, who worked an average of 25 hours a week during the past school year.

Different world

Legislators often tell Rachelle Sharpe that they worked their way through college, and ask: Why don’t students do that today?

The answer: “It’s impossible,” said Sharpe, director of student financial assistance for the Washington Student Achievement Council, the state agency that oversees higher education.

Four years ago, the University of Washington’s undergraduate tuition and fees for in-state undergraduates ranked it in the middle of the pack among flagship institutions in all states. In just four years, it has moved from 25th place to 11th place, according to a WSAC analysis.

At the same time, 78 percent of Washington families don’t make enough money to be able to pay tuition, fees and living expenses at any of the state’s four-year schools out of their yearly earnings, the WSAC has found.

And UW student-government leaders have calculated an undergraduate, in-state student making minimum wage would have to work 54 hours a week, for the entire year, to pay for a year of education at the university. Including room and board, that cost was estimated to be $26,066 for 2012-13.

When Michael Kutz ran for UW student-government president this spring, the issue his fellow students raised with him most often was the effect of tuition hikes on middle-class students — and the opportunities for internships or research they were missing because they had to work.

Stephan Yhann, for example, would love to work in Washington, D.C., one summer, “but you can’t do that unless you have political experience,” he said.

The Kentridge High graduate thinks it would take two summers of unpaid work on a political campaign to be considered for a D.C. internship.

“That’s two summers of lost income,” he said.

One of four children, Yhann is helping to pay for his education and is being aided by his parents’ investment in Guaranteed Education Tuition credits.

Costly decisions

The University of Washington doesn’t have a long-term measure of how many students take unpaid internships, but it has seen rapid growth in the number of undergraduates doing research, most of it unpaid.

The growth may largely be due to the need to have research on a resume, particularly for those who want to go into graduate school in the sciences, said Janice DeCosmo, associate dean for undergraduate academic affairs.

Kutz, who won the student election, wants the university to consider some type of program to ease the cost for middle-income students, such as one at the University of California at Berkeley that caps the family contribution for middle-income families to 15 percent of income.

Yhann said he’s come to think of his fellow students as analogous to “financial bears” — instead of eating through the summer to store fat for the winter, they’re working to save money for the school year.

“Your entire summer is eating everything you can,” he said.

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