Many middle-class University students find tuition difficult to manage

Thursday, February 23, 2017 - 6:18pm

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Illustration by Ava Weiner

LSA junior Joshua Rabotnick moved from Los Angeles in August 2016 to attend the University of Michigan, but cannot afford the tuition bill without loans.

LSA freshman Andrea Perez, an in-state student, is in the same situation as Rabotnick. Two families, both in the middle-class income level, struggle to pay for a degree from the University.

Despite a report from the Equality of Opportunity Project saying the median family income for a student at the University is $154,000, in the same report the University was ranked last in economic social mobility of 25 highly selective public universities.

With students facing debt after graduation and daunting social mobility statistics, students and University representatives are concerned middle-class families will have a hard time paying for a University education.

Back home, Rabotnick’s father used to own a successful business. However, during the 2008 economic recession, Rabotnick’s family lost the business and subsequently lost a large source of its consistent income. To regain future economic stability, his father opened nursing school the year Rabotnick transferred to the University.

“I transferred in as a junior,” Rabotnick said. “I now work as an EMT for the ambulance company out here, Huron Valley Ambulance, but because I worked so much throughout community college, the way it worked in 911 is we worked 24-hour shifts and we could stack them, so I worked 48, 72 hours over a weekend, then be in school all week.”

Rabotnick made too much money while working in L.A. to be classified as a dependent on his parents’ tax forms. However, the Free Application for Federal Student Aid does not consider Rabotnick to be an independent student, rather the University then considers Rabotnick to be a dependent and takes his parents’ earnings into account when allocating financial aid.

Perez moved to Michigan before starting eighth grade, qualifying her for in-state tuition. Despite the difference between average in-state cost of attendance of $28,776 and the average out-of-state lower-division cost of attendance of $59,784, Perez still struggles to pay for school like Rabotnick. Perez’s father is an engineer, but her mother stays at home, and she has two siblings.

In an February interview with The Michigan Daily, E. Royster Harper, the University’s vice president for student life, said a large population of students reside in the middle-class area of distribution and are often ignored by financial aid.

“We want to keep (tuition costs) down, because if you are high income, you’re not worried about it,” she said. “If you’re low income, you’re not worried about it. It’s a lot of kids in the middle, so it’s a real problem, but it isn’t a problem for the students for whom we don’t have many.”

Because Rabotnick’s family made too much money last year to be considered for larger amounts of financial aid though currently does not make enough to help pay for school, Rabotnick said he had to take out student loans to make up for this lack of sizeable financial aid.

“I think that a majority of the student base struggles financially through school and lives off of student loans through school knowing that one day things will be easier, things will be better,” he said. “That’s really the boat that I’m in. I take student loans, essentially, for food every day.”

Perez is in the same situation as Rabotnick, reportedly receiving about $10,000 in financial aid but having to take out about $5,000 in student loans.

“I definitely think there’s a problem, because my dad, he’s an engineer and he makes … a decent salary, but 30 grand a year (for school) on top of a five-person family on top of a mortgage and stuff like that, it’s definitely not enough for my family to be well off while I’m at school, and also my brother is going to school next year, maybe here,” Perez said. “If he is coming here, that would be 60 grand, which is more than half of what my dad gets paid a year.”

University spokesman Rick Fitzgerald addressed Rabotnick’s student debt in an email and stated student debt has decreased over the past four years. According to University data from Fitzgerald, 48 percent of in-state graduates in 2015-16 left the University with no debt. For those that did take out loans, the average was $23,438, which is down from the 2011-12 average of $25,798.

For out-of-state students like Rabotnick, average student debt in 2015-16 was $28,931, a decrease from $34,418 in 2011-12.

“One reason for the decrease in student loans, is that U-M has been replacing loans with grants in financial aid packages,” Fitzgerald wrote. “Grants do not need to be repaid.”

Rabotnick said he has met with the Office of Financial Aid many times to try to explain his situation beyond what the figures and tax forms show on paper. Each time, he was directed toward FAFSA policies and other resources.

He also attempted to establish residency in Michigan, but could not. The University Office of the Registrar residency guidelines require out-of-state students to submit an Application for Resident Classification if they have lived or worked outside of the state of Michigan in the past three years. Rabotnick needs to prove he is a permanent legal resident of Michigan, and because he has lived and worked outside of the state in the last three years, this is difficult to do.

Rabotnick said the administration should take into account his tax independence and his permanent address when looking at his case for in-state tuition or increased financial aid. He said as a public institution, the University wants more out-of-state students for their tuition dollars.

“I love the University of Michigan while I’m far from loving the administration,” he said. “I don’t think the two necessarily go hand-in-hand. I’m happy I’m here … I love getting the education that I’m getting here but the feeling I’ve gotten from dealing with the administration is a bureaucracy which only cares about making money at the expense of students.”

Perez, Rabotnick and Engineering freshman Malika Takale all mentioned how much a degree from the University means to them, but its low ranking in terms of socio-economic mobility concerns them.

Takale, an in-state, upper-middle-class student, said she was surprised that more students did not move up in income values with a degree from the University.

“(The report) is really surprising to me because everyone gives a Michigan degree so much praise and especially because, even though Michigan is a public university, it’s just as expensive for out-of-state kids as an Ivy League school would be,” she said. “I would expect kids to make more money with a degree from Michigan after they graduate.”

Rabotnick, while acknowledging the ranking as an issue, said the data isn’t surprising because many students come to the University with a lot of money already.

“Based off the statistic … with the median income being roughly $150,000, you’re only going to move so much from that point as a professional,” he said. “Unless you’re going into some big specialty in medicine or law, I don’t think there would be much deviation. I do think that people who are lower class have the ability to move up.”

In a previous interview, Fitzgerald referenced other statistics from the Equality of Opportunity Project’s report and its graphical summaries in The New York Times’ The Upshot. According to the data, Michigan was ranked third out of the same 25 highly selective public universities in terms of students with the highest-paying jobs after graduation. The median student income at 34 was $68,700.

“That underscores what some other reports, including the Department of Education’s college scorecard, said about being a good value, a good investment, because it pays off,” he said. “The median salary for our graduates following graduation, some reports show as much as $25,000 higher than the national average.”

Perez said the main goal of college shouldn’t be to make a lot of money after graduation. She also said she believed the University should be more proactive in making sure students are competitive in the workforce after obtaining their degrees.

“You shouldn’t necessarily go to school to get paid,” she said. “But also, if you’re coming to a university that’s claiming to be different speakers and claiming to give you opportunities that other universities can’t give you, then they should assure that their students are better off than other university students when they go out and get jobs.”