What Happens When You Run Out of Money for College (and How You Can Avoid It)

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Alicia Graves was already walking a financial tightrope to afford college when a severe illness led to her losing her merit scholarship, forcing her to drop most of her classes.

“When I lost my merit award, my adviser from my journalism class helped pay for me to take a few terms of only two classes out of her own pocket,” said Graves, a freelance journalist and photographer from Oregon, adding that the stress of managing school finances caused many sleepless nights.

“At times, I had no idea if I’d have enough gas to make it to my classes. I had to watch how much my food cost,” she said. “There was a couple of months where my power was shut off and I had to come up with the funds to get it turned back on.”

Graves, who went on to complete her associate’s degree in 2018 and has plans to pursue a bachelor’s degree in the future, is one of the millions of American college students who have had to drop classes or postpone a degree for financial reasons. It took her three years to complete a two-year program.

The high cost of tuition, a generation faced with crushing student loan debt, and a cap on federal borrowing has left many students scrambling to secure any type of funding that will keep them in school, or simply dropping out without a degree.

Financial Barriers Mount for Many College Students

More than 30% of students who start at 4-year colleges haven’t completed their degree after six years, according to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. While 9.4% were still enrolled after six years, nearly 23% had dropped out.

Leaving school entirely, experts say, can be disastrous down the line. College graduates earn more money than non-degree holders and are on better footing to pay off their debts.

Students who leave before completing their degree are “more likely to default on their student loans, and potentially facing future complications when trying to re-enroll and later complete their degree,” said Eleanor Eckerson Peters, assistant director of policy research at the Institute for Higher Education Policy.

Peters co-authored the recent IHEP report, The Cost of Opportunity: Student Stories of College Affordability, and found that dropping out of a degree program for financial reasons disproportionately affects students from low-income backgrounds, first-generation students, students of color, returning adult students, payday loans NC parenting or caretaking students, and students who are working full-time.

And the financial barriers go way beyond just being able to afford the tuition, which currently averages $34,740 per year for a four-year private college, $9,970 for in-state students at a public university and $25,620 per year for out-of-state students.

“Beyond the high cost of tuition, these challenges included non-tuition costs such as housing, books, food, childcare, transportation, healthcare, and emergency expenses,” Peters said. “Many students were forced to make difficult trade-offs that put their college success at risk and took a toll on their well-being, including skipping meals, taking on student loan and credit card debt, and working multiple jobs.”

Financial Aid No Longer Enough for Some Students

The ever-increasing cost of college tuition, declining financial aid awards and a changing student body that is more economically diverse are all factors in the college affordability game.

Jay Murray is the president and founder of Solutions for Tuition, a Colorado-based college funding firm that has worked with more than 1,400 students all over the country.

“We are seeing an increase in the number of students who are starting to really drill down into the funding process and figure out how they’re going to pay for this,” he said. That means researching every opportunity from scholarships to private student loans. “Even the lending space is becoming more and more competitive.”


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