by Aj Silva, staff writer
Hope is on the horizon for Pikes Peak State College students who find it difficult to attend school while making ends meet. New financial aid laws and increased school resources are in motion to help students finally overcome skyrocketing tuition fees and living expenses.
The college is now offering students more access to resources to help manage increasing costs, like adjusted financial aid policies. With changes in financial aid laws and college resources, students can better achieve their goals in higher education, despite the challenges of inflation.
Many students pursue higher education for economic reasons, such as increased earnings and professional advancement. These benefits can expand professional and economic opportunities, including better compensation, benefits, work conditions, prestige and autonomy than those with just a high school diploma.
But, college affordability continues to be a challenge for students in the United States. Economic factors like inflation have created additional obstacles. Inflation has led to increased tuition, making it difficult for students to afford a college degree.
According to an article for the Brookings Institute, economist Phillip Levine says inflation caused prices to rise by an average of 5.3% during the 2020-21 academic year. The 2021-22 academic year showed even more significant price growth, with an average increase of 8.5%.
This practice is not a new trend, as inflation contributed to the rising cost of college education even before the COVID-19 pandemic. According to Levine, between the school years of 2006-07 and 2019-20, public and private colleges increased their per-student tuition and fees by an average of 27%.
PPSC has adapted to economic inflation by adding to its tuition costs. In the 2013-14 academic year, the in-state tuition cost per credit hour, after deducting the College Opportunity Fund stipend, totaled $112.75. By the 2023-24 academic year, in-state students at PPSC would pay $154.40 per credit hour after subtracting the stipend. Over this last decade, in-state tuition at PPSC increased by 36.9%.
However, Carlos Lopez, a postsecondary workforce specialist who works for the Colorado Department of Education, said tuition costs alone do not tell the whole story of how inflation impacts student finances.
“Students are receiving aid as if tuition is still the price it was in 2000.”
The ability and willingness of the state government to support higher education also play a role.
In a discussion of growing college costs, Lopez said there’s one factor that can’t be overlooked. “The price of college has skyrocketed due to public funding being reduced at a state level,” he said. “Prices didn’t just go up because universities became profit-making machines.”
The inflation presently occurring in the American economy also has created other issues for PPSC students.
Cole Anderson and Erik Gamm, staff members of the nonprofit economic research group Common Sense Institute, stated in their March 2023 report on inflation in Colorado that between 2020 and 2023, inflation caused households in the state to spend a mean amount of $14,800 more than they would typically spend. These added living costs included average increases of $1,732 spent on food, $3,847 on housing and $5,985 on public and private transportation costs.
Rebecca Fernandez, an academic advisor at PPSC, suggested that students may experience greater challenges from inflation’s effects on the costs of living than its effects on tuition costs.
Fernandez, who has worked in higher education for over 30 years, said students’ education-related financial demands “have not significantly changed” in the last three decades. Instead, Fernandez said the COVID-19 pandemic and related economic inflation are more to blame for adding stressors, like higher living costs, to students’ lives.
“I have seen the pandemic really hit many of the students I work with in unexpected ways, financially included,” she said.
Students at PPSC have reported experiencing those types of challenges.
Kat Atherton, a PPSC student, said she can only attend school part-time because she has to work full-time to make ends meet. Atherton acknowledged that neither her job nor her grades have suffered. However, she observed that the situation would be different for students of lower-income backgrounds.
“How can a person afford college when they can barely afford food and rent?” she asked.
Another PPSC student, Michael Martinez, attributed students’ economic difficulties to inflation and inadequate adjustments in federal financial aid. Martinez said that federal aid like Pell Grants has failed to keep pace with inflation. “Students are receiving aid as if tuition is still the price it was in 2000,” he said.
Martinez’s comment highlights another dimension of the financial struggle that PPSC students are now encountering. Although the financial assistance students receive from government sources helps to offset some costs of attending school, it only covers some expenses, and the expenses it does cover are far less than what they used to.
A comment by another PPSC student, Sa’Mya Hall, illustrates the inadequacy of some forms of government aid for meeting students’ needs during times of inflation.
Hall said the fact that federal financial aid has not stayed consistent with rising living costs can be seen because the money doesn’t cover the cost of groceries for a semester for some people. Although Hall acknowledged that federal aid paid for her classes and textbooks, it’s not enough.
“No one can live off the money that is left over,” she complained.
Financial aid is provided to college students based on their needs. An applicant’s need for aid is obtained from his or her responses to the items on the FAFSA or Colorado Application for Student Aid forms. Students may receive financial assistance from federal and state government resources like grants, subsidized and unsubsidized loans, work-study programs and tax credits.
This range of aid options may appear extensive enough to fund most or all students’ costs when working toward a college degree. However, only some students can say that these resources completely meet their academic and living needs.
PPSC students should take advantage of campus options to improve their financial literacy.
Policymakers adjust and increase the total funding each person can receive from federal Pell Grants infrequently, for instance. The Federal Student Aid website, a partner of the United States Department of Education, reported a $500 yearly increase in the maximum annual Pell Grant award to be implemented in the 2023-24 academic year.
Additionally, students can claim 150% of their maximum Pell Grant amount in a given year if they take enough credit hours during the summer to be considered half-time students during that period.
Lindsey Campbell, the director of financial aid at Colorado Mesa University, explained the implications of Pell Grant increases that do not achieve parity with students’ cost increases.
“With the rise in tuition costs and living expenses, the federal Pell Grant can now cover about 29% of a student’s educational cost at 4-year public colleges, compared to 79% back in 1976,” Campbell said.
Pell Grants cannot be a complete solution to college students’ financial demands, but they remain essential in more comprehensive solutions made up of multiple financial resources.
Ron Swartwood, the PPSC director of financial aid, reported that the school awards other resources like Colorado Student Grants to its students to supplement Pell Grant funding. He noted that the school increased the base Colorado Student Grants awards that will be offered next year to help students’ cost of living.
However, PPSC students need to take advantage of available Pell Grants and other state and federal aid options.
During the 2022-23 academic year in Colorado alone, Campbell said state officials estimate that about $30 million in funds will be left behind as a result of students not completing their FAFSA. She noted that in that same school year, Colorado ranked 44th in the nation in getting high school seniors to complete their FAFSA, with about 46% of seniors completing a FAFSA, compared to about 57% nationally.
At PPSC, missed financial aid opportunities have become more common among students, despite the financial pressures of inflation. According to the school’s “2018-22 Data Book,” recent years have seen declines in the percentages of students receiving state and federal aid. The percentages dropped from 52%, or 8,937 students in 2019-20, to 50%, or 6,715 students in 2021-22.
Frequently, PPSC students give up financial aid options because they do not complete a FAFSA or a Colorado Application for Student Aid each year. Several barriers to higher education may impact students who fail to complete these financial aid applications.
Megan Allen, a financial aid advisor at PPSC, said students typically don’t fill out a FAFSA because they don’t know enough about the document. She said filling out the FAFSA can be confusing for many students, especially confusing for independent students with little experience with the form or for dependent students and their parents who must complete it without assistance.
“The form has questions that can be confusing,” she said. “Also, the FAFSA is too long, and some of the questions about income and assets can be intimidating not only for students but also for parents who may not feel comfortable about sharing their financial information.”
Sarah Collette, the Colorado Department of Higher Education’s FAFSA coordinator, described statewide efforts to streamline the FAFSA experience.
“I am working to create a FAFSA toolkit that will include many financial aid and FAFSA resources, she said, noting that the toolkit will be offered in several languages. “[It will also feature] supports for populations of students who have accommodations as outlined by the FAFSA or youth who may be considered independent.”
Collette also discussed the FAFSA Simplification Act that became law in December 2020 and is being rolled out presently.
“[The law] represents a significant overhaul of federal student aid, including the FAFSA form itself, need analysis and many federal policies and procedures for schools to participate in federal student aid programs,” she said.
The FAFSA Simplification Act’s implementation also involves improvements in how the Colorado Department of Higher Education will educate college students and their families about the FAFSA. Collette said the department will work to create awareness around the new FAFSA changes by updating FAFSA campaign materials, continuing outreach across the state to promote FAFSA completion, attending financial aid conferences and creating an updated FAFSA toolkit.
Fernandez recommended that PPSC students should take advantage of campus options to improve their financial literacy.
“Have the tools to create and follow a budget to allow them the opportunity to attend college,” she said.
“I stress the amazing opportunities available [to students] when they go for stackable degrees … where they can attain certificates on their way to an associate’s degree,” while “Technical education options are great quick training programs that provide a stable income,” Fernandez said.
Furthermore, meeting with a PPSC financial aid advisor can help students overcome barriers to FAFSA completion and to identify potential sources of aid, such as private grants, internships, and loans from reputable lenders that students might have overlooked or not known about.