ATHENS Ga.—Christina Serra is like a lot of University of Georgia students. The HOPE Scholarship has paid for a huge part of her college expenses, but she still has to work to pay for her college education.
But Serra, now a UGA graduate student, is also different. A year away from graduating with a master’s of public administration degree, Serra has managed to avoid borrowing money, unlike most UGA students.
“I don’t have student loans, which is a blessing,” she said.
As a graduate student, she no longer receives the HOPE scholarship, which is why she’s working full-time this semester.
Avoiding borrowing hasn’t always been easy, but Serra considers herself lucky.
For one thing, during her undergraduate years at UGA, she kept her grades up and received a full HOPE Scholarship all through school, which meant the state paid her full tuition costs.
“The HOPE Scholarship is why I have no loans,” she said.
Today’s undergraduates aren’t so lucky, she said.
The lottery-funded scholarship no longer pays full tuition for most students, and the percentage is expected to decline in the future.
Unlike Serra, most UGA students graduate with some debt. And while UGA students’ debt loads are modest compared to students in most states, that debt load has been growing fast, especially after the 2008 recession shrank families’ financial resources.
In the 2007-08 school year, 13,681 UGA students borrowed $80.3 million for college expenses. This year, about 22,000 of UGA’s 34,500 students are borrowing about $152 million to pay for college.
And the shrinking value of HOPE is likely to play a bigger and bigger role in driving up those loan totals in the future.
For the past decade and more, college costs in Georgia and nationwide have been going up faster than inflation, faster even than the rising cost of medical care.
In the 2002-2003 academic year, UGA undergraduate students paid $3,616 in tuition and fees. Today’s students pay $10,262.
Even with those increases, UGA’s average tuition and fees are about average compared to other flagship universities in the South.
It’s not faculty pay that’s driving the increasing cost of college. The average associate professor at UGA made about $79,200 in 2011, up about 25 percent from 10 years earlier, for example. The university’s budget has grown in those 10 years, but a bigger reason for students’ rising bills is a decline in state support. That decline began decades ago, but accelerated sharply after the 2008 recession.
In the 2002-2003 academic year, state tax appropriations accounted for 38 percent of the university’s expenditures. Ten years earlier, it was 48 percent. This year, the state contribution is just 27 percent. As the state’s portion shrank, the student and family portion grew, and now accounts for a larger part of the UGA budget than state tax money.
That same scenario is being played out in most states, and, as students have been asked to pay more, they’re borrowing more to pay the bill.
The total U.S. student debt is now about $1 trillion, higher even than total U.S. credit card debt, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of New York.
Serra pays a price for not taking out a loan, like those days when almost every waking hour she’s in class, working, studying or getting ready to do one of those things.
Between school and work, she’s also an intern at the Georgia Museum of Art, where she helps with the kind of work she hopes to do when she graduates, event planning and coordination.
She cut back on classes this semester to fit in the internship and full-time work, taking just two classes instead of the normal three.
“I cut down to two classes to give myself a little bit of social life and sleep,” she said. Serra took summer classes and still expects to graduate on time this spring.
Her employer and fellow workers try to lighten the load when the demands of school dictate.
“When school gets crazy, there’s always someone who will take a shift for you,” she said.
But life sometimes still feels like a marathon.
“It’s a struggle. I get burned out. I get tired. A lot of times what gets sacrificed is time with the people that I love,” she said. “There’s friends in Athens who live two blocks away and we have to schedule time together a month in advance.”
But a University of Georgia master’s degree in public administration is worth a lot of money on the job market, she figures.
“I couldn’t do what I do now forever,” she said, “but right now it’s worth it; knowing it’s not forever.”