From the outside, it appears that Gianna Rato, a freshman business major at Bucks and a first-generation college student, has the world at her fingertips. Between a scholarship that covers almost an entire year at the college, her enrollment in Bucks’ honors program, and multiple high school AP classes from William Tenant, Rato is seemingly in a very good position to transfer next year to a four-year school. There’s only one problem: “If I hadn’t gotten that scholarship, I’m not sure if I would have gone to Bucks.”
Unfortunately, Rato isn’t alone: Despite working an exhausting 32-hour workweek, Rato is just one of many students who are having a hard time paying for an education at Bucks.
Although Bucks and other community colleges are still overwhelmingly cheaper than state or private institutions – the cost of attending La Salle University, for example, can amount to over $50,000 per year — they are still difficult to afford for a wide range of students. “I can’t afford school, and I couldn’t afford to have lunch, due to the fact that my Discover card isn’t accepted in the cafeteria,” sighed Gina Lutz, a psychology major.
This has led both students and professors to pose the question: If even community college is getting too expensive for some students, is something wrong? The current tuition rate is $140 per credit for a student living in the county, which would add up to $2,100 for five courses. This does not include various required surcharges, including activity fees ($2 per semester credit hour), a services fee, technology support fees ($35 per semester credit hour), and a returned check fee. Out-of-state and out-of-county students must also pay a capital fee ($20 per semester credit hour). “They went up from last year,” Lutz noted. Additionally, certain art, nursing, and science classes have other secondary costs, such the $100 studio art fee necessary for taking Music Technology. Effectively, it costs over $2,700 per semester to attend Bucks full time, not including books, and that cost continues to rise. A tuition increase of $5 per credit was also announced for the fall semester, increasing the cost of attending to $4,418 for 24 credits, according to a Bucks press release.
Looking at data from previous issues of The Centurion, the price of attending Bucks has been rising for over 15 years, from $81 per credit in 2003 to today’s rates. This rise in tuition can be linked in part to multiple budget cuts imposed by the state of Pennsylvania under former Governor Tom Corbett. In 2011, acting to fulfill a campaign promise not to raise taxes and reduce the deficit, Corbett slashed the budget for community colleges as well as for other state institutions. He followed this up with additional cutbacks in 2012 and 2014. These austerity policies have continued under the current administration of Governor Tom Wolf, who in February flat-funded the state’s community colleges as part of his 2017-2018 austerity budget, according to the Pittsburg-Post Gazette.
The increasing price of tuition at Bucks, while not even close to equaling the cost of four-year schools, has arguably placed the college out of reach of many potential students. According to Census Bureau data, 6.3 percent of Bucks County residents live below the poverty line (currently $12,486 for an individual living alone) which is determined by the amount of a family’s income spent on food. Between food, rent and household debt, it would be tremendously difficult for a student to pay for four years of tuition, even at Bucks, as well as basic necessities, under these circumstances. The National Student Campaign Against Hunger and Homelessness, a Massachusetts nonprofit group, recently surveyed 3,765 students in both community colleges and four-year institutions. Among their respondents, 22 percent of students reported very low levels of food security, enough to classify them as hungry. And 13 percent of community college students surveyed experienced homelessness.
Even you don’t live in poverty it can still be tough to afford community college if you are working part-time at a minimum wage level. Both Lutz and Rato expressed fear that they may not be able to keep up with the money required to continue attending. “It seems like the [multiple] payments were higher than they were last year. I don’t know if this is because they are clumping them together. It does mean that I can’t afford to pay this year,” Lutz explained.
Rato said that she had been planning to attend Temple, but she would have had to borrow $15,000 per year just to pay for room and board. She applied to Bucks and received both the dean’s scholarship and the honors scholarship. “I chose the honors one. If I didn’t get either, I probably would have just started working full-time.”
College administrators and teachers offer several tips for students who are finding it hard to come up with the money to pay for community college. “I think that students should be very vigilant in the way they calculate their education, and assess the cost of college before they go there,” said Christina Fogle, an administrative assistant for Student Services. “You need to know the difference between your money expenses and what you make at work, and do all the calculations.”
Fogle also said students should be extremely careful about calculating how much they need to borrow. “A lot of the time, students borrow more money than they need, which increases their debt.” Bucks also offers services to students who find it difficult to pay the auxiliary costs of attending college There are applications that can reduce the cost of books, and Bucks gives students the opportunity to be part of the Federal Work-Study Program. Students can also take advantage of several tax credits.
Other resources exist for students who are trying to pay for community college. Fogle recommended second-year scholarships, such as the Fellowship Foundation Scholarship, which requires six classes and financial need. Taking Advanced Placement (AP) classes during high school can also lower the cost of attending college, as a good score on these tests can count for college credits.
Sadly, even this isn’t always enough. “I had a semester’s worth of AP credits, and I would have taken more, but I couldn’t afford the AP test fees,” Rato explained. “This week, I’m working 34 and a half hours at ShopRite.” Despite all of these setbacks, however, Rato is still relatively optimistic about her future. “I only have one more semester, so I can shell out the $2500 if need be or split it into payments. I am still figuring out what business school I will transfer too. All I know is that Temple is no longer guaranteed.”