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The Great Divide

The amount of money in your checking account really affects what your college experience is like. For some students, tuition hikes mean another part time job, more student loans and massive credit card debt. And while those on top hardly notice the increa

 by Sam Friedman
 published on Thursday, February 16, 2006

/issues/arts/695793
On the cover
 
Journalism and mass communications freshman Amber Guida treats herself to a Starbucks Frappucino while she studies for her mass media and Society class. The 18-year-old says she has to work full time, in addition to a full class load at ASU and bartending school, to make ends meet. After she pays her bills each month she has about $50 left for pleasure and says these cofee drinks are the only indulgence she allows herself./issues/arts/695793
Tiffany Tcheng / STATE PRESS MAGAZINE
Journalism and mass communications freshman Amber Guida treats herself to a Starbucks Frappucino while she studies for her mass media and Society class. The 18-year-old says she has to work full time, in addition to a full class load at ASU and bartending school, to make ends meet. After she pays her bills each month she has about $50 left for pleasure and says these cofee drinks are the only indulgence she allows herself.
 

/issues/arts/695793
Tiffany Tcheng / STATE PRESS MAGAZINE
 
/issues/arts/695793
Tiffany Tcheng / STATE PRESS MAGAZINE
 

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It's Tuesday morning and Amber Guida has just marched into the Hayden Library cafe. The journalism freshman arrived on campus at 8:30 this morning, and this is her only break before 11:00 p.m. when she finishes for the day.

Dressed in a smart pin-stripe jacket and with a cigarette hanging casually between her fingers, Guida appears much older than her 18 years. Sitting down, she lights the cigarette and quickly exhales in one long, exhausted gesture.

It's only Guida's second semester at ASU, but so far college has been somewhat of a baptism by fire, she says.

"I'm trying to combine 15 credits of study, full-time work and a bartending course," she says. "I'm so tired."

Guida describes her upbringing as normal but explains that her parents can hardly afford to pay any of her college expenses. Instead, the bill is paid by a modest annual scholarship of $1,000, student loans totaling $2,500 a year and 40-plus hours of work a week.

"Usually I get my paycheck, work out how much for bills and food, and then see what's left over," she says.

She says she usually has to laugh at the final figure.

"I have around $50 dollars a week left for leisure, so I mainly live off TV dinners," she says. "But at least the electricity gets paid."

"The only luxury I allow myself are these," she adds, lifting her Starbucks Frappucino like it's the Pulitzer prize.

With her packed schedule and TV dinners, Guida isn't exactly the embodiment of ASU's party-school image. But she's not alone.

While there are students at ASU who haven't worked a day in their lives, there are also many self-sufficient students for whom college is both a financial and emotional struggle.

English senior Erin Lister was brought up by two parents with long-term drug addictions. Her father was addicted to cocaine, and her mother was addicted to crystal meth.

In terms of parental support, she says it's more a case of her helping them than the other way around.

She often gives both her parents money and recently had to house her father after his long-term unemployment led to homelessness.

"Most people from traditional backgrounds find it hard to fathom that it's not just an absence of family, but a burden," she says.

Apart from providing her parents with money and occasional shelter, Lister also tries to juggle full-time work, a board position at a canine charity and 13 credit hours.

She says the combined stress nearly led her to a breakdown at the start of this semester.

"Having to cope with so much stuff was just getting on top of me, I was just exhausted," she says

Lister recovered fully and says she's as busy as ever.

Despite a generous private scholarship, Lister has still had to work as many as 60 hours a week to stay afloat in college. She says it's the desire not to repeat her parents' mistakes which motivates her to push herself so close to the edge.

"I have a brother and sister who still live in poverty and I want to make sure they have the same opportunities I've had," she says. "I want to build a legacy for my family."

Middle Class Squeeze

Ultimately the huge variations in how students pay for their ASU education can have a profound effect on their college experience.

Take President Crow's recent plans to increase tuition by 8.5 percent next semester. While this may mean little to students whose parents front their tuition bill, self-sufficient students like Guida and Lister say the increases will only place them under more financial pressure.

"Over the years, I have received less and less money after the tuition bill is paid," Lister says.

But Crow says he thinks there is an overemphasis on tuition.

"Our tuition is still at $4,200 looking to move to $4,600, which is low compared to other universities," he says. "If you drive down tuition you take away from the institution's ability to compete."

According to Crow the problem is not rising tuition, which only constitutes a fraction of students cost of living, but a complete lack of state financial aid.

"Arizona is one of only five states without aid and we urge students, citizens, the governor and the regents to lobby to expand state financial aid," he says.

One of the groups trying to do just that is the Arizona Students Association, or ASA. Serena Unrein from ASA says there is one program for state-based aid, the Arizona Financial Aid Trust, but she describes it as "paltry" and adds that it is funded by equal contributions from students and the state.

"There is currently a bill in the state legislature to require the state to provide a 2-to-1 match of students' contributions and it is one of ASA's top priorities to make sure it passes," she says.

Even then, Arizona's state financial aid is still extremely low compared to other states. All three Arizona universities receive just $3.5 million in state-funded aid, a pittance compared to the $380 million invested in Georgia, for example.

Without access to more aid, Guida says the tuition hikes may well force her to take out more student loans.

But this is only likely to exacerbate problems, after Congress passed a bill last week that will greatly increase interest rates on student loans.

As of July 1, rates on loans taken out by parents, known as Plus loans, will rise from 6.1 percent to 8.5 percent and the rates on Stafford loans, taken out by students, will increase from 5.3 percent to 6.8 percent.

Luke Swarthout, from the Washington-based higher education advocacy group, State Public Interest Research Group, is critical of the bill.

"This is the largest raid on student aid in US history," he says.

The bill will only intensify the student debt burden, according to Swarthout, especially for lower-middle class students who face rapidly growing tuition fees and have no access to financial aid.

Guida says it frustrates her that financial restrictions stop her from being the best possible student.

"If I could focus more on my studies, I know I could be a 4.0 student," she says. "But it's hard to motivate yourself to look at books when you finish work late every night."

The Strain of Overwork

Students shouldn't even be contemplating opening their books late at night, according to Mark Groberski, Associate Director of ASU's Counseling and Consultation Center. He says overdoing it can lead to serious stress-related illnesses.

"Trying to combine full-time study with full-time work is very hard, and I imagine it puts a serious strain on students," he says.

The pressure of overwork can have disastrous consequences. Just ask Jennifer Floyd.

Floyd was a political science freshman at ASU two years ago, but had to withdraw after one of her tonsils burst and she was rushed to the emergency room for surgery.

"Just after winter break, I developed strep throat and had to take a few days off," she says. "When I returned, I should have taken things easy, but was trying desperately to catch up and juggle a full-time job. I was just pushing myself too hard and when the virus came back, my body was very vulnerable," she says.

History graduate student and teaching assistant Brian Collier says he also notices the damaging effect of overwork. He says students of his who work full time tend to struggle.

"It's hard for them to keep up with readings and they suffer from not having time to engage with classmates about the course," he says.

The great irony, according to Collier, is that college is supposed to prepare students for the world of work but the ones who already work the hardest are losing out.

Students who feel overworked should think about some kind of compromise, advises Groberski.

"I understand many students must work to survive, and also that they want to finish college as soon as possible," he says. "But sometimes you have to be realistic, even if it means cutting down to two courses."

How the Other Half Lives

A quick stroll around Lot 59 reveals that not all students at ASU are struggling to make ends meet. Apart from the many pristine Jaguars and BMWs, the lot is also home to one very special 1994 Mercedes convertible.

It belongs to business sophomore Josh Casper. Casper sits proudly at the wheel; his dark shades a perfect match for the black leather upholstery. This car, he explains, was a high school graduation present, but cars -- particularly Mercedes -- are a longtime family hobby.

"My dad collects Mercedes from the 60s and 70s -- he's got over 30," he says.

Casper's father is a podiatrist who started from scratch and made his fortune investing in the stock market.

Casper and his twin sister were raised in the wealthy Phoenix suburb of Fountain Hills, but now live by themselves in the family's former home in Mesa.

"It's definitely more than two college kids need," Casper says.

College life, as described by Casper, couldn't be more different than that experienced by Guida or Lister.

Casper has no loans, no scholarships and no job. His parents pay for tuition, housing and give him an allowance to live off. Life is "relaxed," Casper says.

But despite the apparent luxury, Casper refuses to be labeled a brat.

"My parents have never just given me anything, and they trust me to work hard and not take advantage," he says.

Casper is unlikely to be affected by Crow's tuition-raising proposals, but says he's sympathetic to those who will.

"There is a certain feeling of guilt. I don't think I could work full time and I really look up to those who can," he says.

After finishing at ASU Casper says he plans get a masters degree, although he says he's conscious of continuing to rely on his parents.

"I can't wait to be financially independent. I really hate being so dependant," he says.

He adds that financial security can also bring with it certain parental pressures.

"I think when you've had the opportunities there's certainly a little pressure to succeed," he says.

The Scandinavian Way

Danish exchange student Camilla Christensen screws up her face at the idea of a parental pressure.

"I would hate it if my parents paid for my education, I would always feel somehow indebted to them," she says.

Christensen studies communication at the University of Copenhagen in Denmark, where the education system is completely different.

In Denmark, students don't start college until they're 20, and there is no need for loans because tuition is paid by the government.

In addition, the government provides a living allowance for every student, regardless of their background, which Christensen says is equivalent to $800 a month.

"The allowance covers your housing and most of your living expenses and people only work for a few hours a week," she says.

Although she admits that some Danes take advantage of the system, Christensen says the beauty of Danish higher education is that it is fundamentally egalitarian and free for everyone.

"There's a greater equality amongst students in Denmark and more time for leisure," she says.

"If I was American I wouldn't be at university because my parents wouldn't be able to afford it."

Power to Change

Guida, Lister and Casper all agree the Scandinavian system offers a happy ideal, but are skeptical of it as a model for America. It's unrealistic, they say.

But Guida does think action needs to be taken at ASU to help students who support themselves.

"The combination of tuition and interest rate increases is like a double hit for me. Financial aid must increase to help with the extra costs," she says.

Lister agrees. She says more than just increased aid, there needs to be an increased understanding of the challenges, both financial and emotional, facing non-traditional students.

"Everyone involved in the university, even professors, make assumptions about the capabilities of their students, which can be frustrating," she says. "Essentially, as a non-traditional student you're fighting against a system that wasn't built for you."

Reach the reporter at sam.friedman@asu.edu.



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