Declining government support squeezes student loan and grant options


According to The Institute For College Access and Success, 68 percent of 2015 public college graduates had student debt. On average, each student borrows over $30,000. This number has been on a steady incline for decades.

Combined with the steadily decreasing state funding of the Vermont State Colleges, JSC students find themselves graduating with an average of $26,000 in student loan debt.

“The first semester causes me more worry than the second semester,” said JSC Senior Heather St. Arnault. “This is because after loans, grants and some scholarships I still owe the school $1,000. Second semester I get a refund. I normally choose to forget that I owe the school $13,000 after college and remind myself it could be worse.”

According to JSC Student Financial Services Supervisor Deneen Russell, more than half of students end up owing the school versus getting a refund.

“We’re able to offer less to the students than we used to,” said Russell. “It’s been so long since we’ve gotten a good amount of state funding, but it takes its toll over the year . . . because of the less state funding, tuition has to keep increasing to make the budget, which makes it harder and harder for students to pay for college.”

Lisa Cummings, JSC’s director of financial aid, said that students’ financial aid packages haven’t had to be reduced yet, although it increasingly covers less of the rising tuition costs.

“I think it’s affected all of the state colleges to an extent. We ourselves haven’t had to cut down on aid packages, and we’re hoping that doesn’t have to happen . . . Right now, we’ve been able to make things work. We haven’t hit that point yet where we’ve had to reduce anything.”

Federal funding of higher education hasn’t changed much over the years. In some cases, it has even increased.

“We’ve been getting the same allotment for as far back as I can remember,” said Cummings. “Nothing from the federal government has changed; it rarely does. The Perkins loan never changes, it’s kind of a revolving account . . . Pell Grants have usually increased each year. Unfortunately, the increases haven’t been as large as they have been, say, maybe eight or 10 years ago.”

According to Cummings, grants from VSAC usually increase a little bit as well. Their funding levels for this next year have yet to be determined, since their appropriations from the state haven’t been announced.

Direct state funding of the Vermont State Colleges has declined drastically in the last 30 years; Vermont has gone from covering 51 percent of the VSC’s operating costs to 14.5 percent, and tuition has increased to cover the rest.

“[The need for state funding] has stayed the same, or decreased if you consider [that] unfortunately, we’re a tuition-driven nonprofit college,” said Cummings. “So in a sense it’s decreased if tuition has to rise slightly to cover costs of the college. You’re starting to see that differential, and that’s been going on for a good thirty years. It’s sad.”

With federal and state aid only going so far to cover the cost of a college education, students often have to turn elsewhere for help.

JSC’s office of Student Academic Support Services offers financial assistance to students who meet certain qualifications, including being a first-generation college student or living below the poverty line.

“Our federal grant requires us that we meet certain ratios,” said Karen Madden, director of academic support services. “So two-thirds of the students have to be first-generation or low-income, and a third of the students who are disabled also have to be low-income. So just because you’re eligible doesn’t mean we can actually put you on at any specific time because we have those ratios we have to fill.”

The federal TRiO scholarship requirements state that students have to be eligible for Pell Grant and have 60 credits or less. TRiO adds other requirements, including that they have to have received three or more TRiO services before the grant is issued, do financial literacy work and have a 2.0 GPA.

According to Madden, around $10,000 is available in total scholarships per year, and the average award per student is approximately $1,000 because there are many students who either aren’t eligible or don’t meet the criteria.

Unlike JSC’s financial aid department, TRiO’s scholarship funds come entirely from fundraising.

There is an overarching Vermont TRiO organization that all TRiO programs in Vermont belong to. There are numerous fundraising opportunities, including an essay contest every March where students write an essay about how TRiO has helped them be successful.

The Student Emergency Fund, on the other hand, is not connected to TRiO but is still handled by Madden. This fund consists only of funds donated by JSC faculty and staff.

According to Madden, the emergency fund has approximately $10,000 per year, but the number changes depending on donations. The limit per student, per year is $150. Applications for the fund are reviewed by a board directed by Madden.

“Most applications come in the first two or three weeks of the semester for students who need to buy books or art supplies,” said Madden. “Those two things are the biggest. Then towards the end of the semester we get requests from students who have an unpaid bill, so they can’t register.”

The application has several categories for “emergencies” that students can use the funds for, such as books, financial holds, broken reading glasses, utility shut-offs and art supplies. The funds must be requested for situations that affect academic performance.

“Sometimes a student will ask for money for a car repair, because they need it to get to class, or for gas to get to class if they don’t live on campus,” said Madden. “Sometimes its utilities, because if they get their power or heat turned off they can’t be successful in school. But the vast majority are directly books, art supplies, a bill that needs to get paid, or something like that.”

The fund was first made available during the 2011-12 school year, during which 40 students applied for it. Last year, about 55 students applied. As of the beginning of February, 55 students have already applied this year, and Madden estimates another 10 or 15 more.

“I think I take out around $2,500 in loans per year,” said JSC sophomore Kyle Betournay. “It’s really stressful when you get a hold on your account for something that is totally out of your control, and you start stressing about that instead of worrying about your classes and your grades. And it’s always a hassle and a long, arduous process that takes up more time than it should.”

Unless students ask for funds for a very specific amount, like the cost of a textbook, the maximum award amount is requested. According to Madden, only one student this year has asked for less than $150.

“It does go out faster than it comes in,” said Madden. “We could use more. $150 doesn’t go very far . . . We started out giving $100, then as we started getting more people giving money we moved it up to $150. But it would be nice to move it up to at least $200.”

TRiO isn’t alone in the effort to raise money for the students and, ultimately, the college.

“Every year, we’re advocating at the Vermont Association for Student Financial Aid Administrator,” said Cummings. “But we’re also advocating at the state and Washington level . . . It’s never that we are not trying.”

Cummings pointed out that much of Vermont’s education funding goes towards K-12 schools. She asserted that it’s “starting to be seen” that there is an imbalance in funding, and that perhaps too much is being taken from higher education.

“Ultimately, they need to make that decision and see, hopefully, that we need more help here,” said Cummings. “We want to have more Vermonters going to college . . . I think they’re not standing behind students wanting to go to college with what they’ve done so far . . . Personally, for the state, I think it’s a shame that we’re at that low a level. I don’t think it’s anything to be proud of.”

It is still unclear at this point whether or not Governor Phil Scott’s budget proposal, giving the VSC a base funding increase of $4 million, will pass.

“I know there’s a good fight going on about getting more state funding this year, and it’s looking positive,” said Cummings. “I mean, it’s always kind of political game.”

Ed note: This is the third in a series exploring issues surrounding student debt in Vermont.