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Report indicates Missouri students struggling with college costs

by Ryan Pivoney | October 28, 2021 at 4:30 a.m. | Updated October 28, 2021 at 10:33 a.m.
This photo taken Nov. 9, 2015, shows a University of Missouri student walking across the bridge over Providence Road in Columbia.

More than half of college survey-takers can't afford to eat well-balanced meals.

More than a third are struggling with the cost of tuition, fees, books and supplies.

The Missouri Department of Higher Education and Workforce Development's 2020 survey of 9,921 college students indicates at least one major trend: Missouri students, particularly those who are low income or students of color, are struggling with the costs of college.

The survey, conducted last fall, asked a series of qualitative questions about student expenditures with the goal of forming a better understanding of students' experiences paying for higher education.

The survey was followed up by a series of focus groups hosted by the department in spring of 2021.

The survey results and focus group information have become the basis for this year's Equity in Missouri Higher Education reports and summit - a three-day virtual event bringing together administrators and education stakeholders from around the country and state this week.

The department released the first in a series of equity reports Tuesday.

Roughly 46 percent of the college students responded they struggle with the cost of tuition and fees, while 36 percent said they have trouble with book and supply costs. More than 30 percent said they struggle with other expenses, and more than a quarter - 26 percent - said they struggle with housing and utility costs while in college.

Additional costs the students reported struggling with include food and groceries (21 percent) and transportation (16 percent).

"Overwhelmingly, the cost of tuition and books was listed as the biggest obstacle to student success even when evaluated alongside other stressors such as work and family responsibilities," the report states. "Students expressed frustration with not only the many fees they are required to pay, but also trying to figure out what the fees were actually for."

Since 2016, the yearly total of tuition and required fees charged to a typical full-time student has increased by at least $1,000 at all but one Missouri four-public institutions of higher education.

Harris-Stowe State University is the exception as its tuition and fees have only increased almost $800 since 2016. Most four-year public institutions have increased costs by $1,500-$2,000 for state residents, and closer to $3,000-$5,000 for students from other states, in the past five years.

The financial barrier of tuition and fees has priced some students out of programs they qualify for academically.

"Cost really was the deciding factor for where I could go, because after I got the financial aid summary from my dream school that I really wanted to go to, I realized that I was never gonna be able to afford anything unless I got an actual full-ride scholarship," a student said in the report.

Almost 40 percent of the survey respondents were Pell grant or Access Missouri grant recipients. The two grants are often used to indicate low-income status.

More than half - 56 percent - of respondents were employed, and of those employed students, 27.4 percent reported having more than one job in addition to their studies.

About 11 percent of the respondents worked full time while going to school, but the rate was higher among Black students (15 percent) and low-income students (13.5 percent).

Still, 55.6 percent of respondents reported not being able to afford well-balanced meals, 49.3 percent were worried their food would run out before they had the ability to buy more, and 40.3 percent reported their food "just didn't last," and they weren't able to get more.

"I go weeks without food and buying groceries because I pay my rent so I won't get evicted," a student was quoted in the report. "I eat at work and when I don't work, I drink coffee to trick my stomach into thinking it is full."

More than 38 percent of the responding college students took out some form of student loans. At 54 percent, low-income students were nearly twice as likely to take out a student loan than the 29 percent of responding higher-income students.

Missouri's Black and Hispanic college students were "slightly more likely" to take out student loans than higher-income students.

Nationally, the average public university student borrows $30,030 to get a bachelor's degree. Student debt in the United States totals $1.73 trillion and grows at a rate six times faster than the U.S. economy.

Despite taking out loans, the report notes there was a "pervasive worry" among responding students that the money and time they were investing in a college education wouldn't be worth it in the end.

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