Economic Crisis Hits Colleges In Pennsylvania
ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
From NPR News, this is All Things Considered. I'm Robert Siegel.
MELISSA BLOCK, host:
And I'm Melissa Block. While the economic crisis is making it harder to pay for college, it's also making it hard for colleges and universities to meet their own financial needs. They're struggling to deal with an increase in needy students at a time when states are planning cuts in higher education funding. NPR's Claudio Sanchez visited a community college in one of the hardest hit states, Pennsylvania.
CLAUDIO SANCHEZ: College students in Pennsylvania are hurting, and Winnie Black is seeing it firsthand.
Dr. WINNIE BLACK (Vice President for Student Affairs, Harrisburg Area Community College): They're coming to us and say, hey, I can't do it, and my parents can't do it.
SANCHEZ: Black is vice president for Student Affairs at Harrisburg Area Community College, known here as HACC. She says even students who've already paid the full tuition and fees this school year aren't sure if they're going to have the money to stay in school.
Dr. BLACK: We do have a system for emergencies, but by no means can we assist all the students. And the kinds of things that students come to us and need assistance for are utilities, housing, health care, child care.
SANCHEZ: Students are even lining up for food stamps. And it's not just students, says Black. Their parents are thinking about survival too.
Dr. BLACK: If you look at the unemployment rates in Pennsylvania, I mean, we just have a lot of people where we have mother and child or father and child coming back to school at the same time.
SANCHEZ: That's bringing a surge in applications, says Black. And it couldn't have come at a worse time. Pennsylvania state Legislature is likely to cut higher education when it convenes at the end of January. More than 20 states have trimmed their higher education budgets already, forcing schools to raise their tuition by as much as 14 percent in some places. Instate tuition at public universities nationwide is rising. There's more federal aid available for this year than last, but the gap between the amount the government offers and what it actually costs to attend a public college in Pennsylvania continues to grow.
Another big issue for students at HACC is what happens to them after they finish here. Several students I met in HACC's cafeteria were unsure if they'd be able to transfer to a four-year school. Michael Umbacher(ph) says Penn State, his dream school, now seems out of reach, even with the money he saved from working fulltime.
Mr. MICHAEL UMBACHER (Student, Harrisburg Area Community College): I work at UPS, and they've been cutting hours a lot. So I've been forced to, like, save a lot more money and stuff because they're not giving me as many hours at work to pay for school and books.
SANCHEZ: Michael is living at home, but he says his parents are financially strapped. They can't offer him much help. He takes a sip of coffee, excuses himself, and buries his head into a thick notebook.
Unidentified Woman: And check on how much you already have done and the kind of layout where you need to go so...
SANCHEZ: A few tables down, college recruiters from across the state are chatting with students about transferring, and trying really hard to sound upbeat.
Mr. RYAN NICELY(ph) (Employee, Eastern Pennsylvania University): There's a perception out there that banks are totally shutting the door on student aid, which actually is not true.
SANCHEZ: Ryan Nicely works for Eastern Pennsylvania University, which costs about $20,000 a year. Nicely says, of course people hate going into debt to pay for college, but buying an education is not like buying a car. A car never pays you back, says the former Saturn salesman.
Mr. NICELY: It depreciates as soon as you leave the lot. With an education, if you can figure out a way to get that $20,000, it's the best investment you can put in yourself because your job can be taken away, God forbid, your house can be taken away. No one can ever take away your education.
SANCHEZ: For its part, the U.S. Education Department says the federal government is doing all it can to stabilize the money supply for student loans, in part by bailing out private lenders. But department officials concede that unless the economy improves quickly, the financial burden on students as well as institutions will get worse before it gets better. Claudio Sanchez, NPR News.