Financial Aid Distribution Rises, Yet Students Still Face Economic Pitfalls

Shalaine Thomas (left) and Marcell McKenzie read through their homework in ESU's University Center.

Sean Mickalitis 

News Editor 

“What’s the typical diet of a college student?” asked Dr. Gene Kelly, as he spoke about hardships and challenging decisions college students make to receive an education, an education that can equal or exceed the cost of a home.

Kelly gave an indigent answer— “Ramen noodles and easy mac. We’ve romanticized the idea of college student starvation.”

Reports show more students are qualifying for need-based financial aid at ESU and other PASSHE universities, but despite the grants and scholarships, some students are struggling to pay their bills and even feed themselves.

Last February, Kelly and Health and Wellness Director Amy Freeman gave a presentation about food insecurity, and some of the data they presented showed that students who receive financial aid have increased.

For the 2016-2017 academic year at ESU, 2,395 students were given financial aid through the federal Pell grant, according to the U.S. Department of Education (DOE).

That may not seem like many students with ESU’s enrollment rate at 6,830 for the fall of 2016, according to the university’s website, but it’s a sharp increase in students who received need-based aid from a decade ago.

In 2006, 1,213 students received need-based aid; that’s a 97 percent increase from a decade ago.

Some may suspect that it’s because of an increase in enrollment, but statistically, the number of full-time students who attend four-year universities have been on the decline since 2010 when it was at 11.5 million, but today, it’s at 10.4 million, according to the DOE.

Why is there a decline in nationwide attendance but an increase in need-based aid?

Vice President of Enrollment Management David Bousquet knows why. It’s a course of events that began over 10 years ago. 

“If you go back and look at the Great Recession, a lot of people lost their jobs. If you go back further, a lot of people lost home equity, so a substantial amount of home value was wiped out,” Bousquet said.

He explained that since many people lost home equity, which is money they could borrow from the bank to pay for things like college expenses.

“A lot of people lost their jobs. They may have since become reemployed, but often it’s not at that same level. For instance, you may have made $80,000 as a warehouse foreman, but not you’re making $40,000 doing something else,” Bousquet said.

Nominal post-recession wage growth is far below target in recovery. Jobs have returned since the recession, but wages remain stagnant, according to a report from the Economic Policy Institute.

In 2007, wage growth was at 3.6 percent and dipped to 1.6 in 2012. Today, it’s at 2.4 percent and is barely ahead of the Federal Reserve’s 2 percent inflation rate, the report said.

Slow wage growth is a potential reason why more students are qualifying for need-based financial aid such as the Pell grant; funding that is determined by household size and income; Kelly emphasized this idea.

“There’s a social issue—recession. A lot of jobs that were higher paying jobs in families are now mid-level or service industry jobs where folks are making minimum wage. We don’t have a living wage in our country,” Kelly said.

Many students are choosing ESU and other PASSHE universities over private institutions such as Lafayette College, which has 235 students qualifying for the Pell grant or Wilkes University with 583 for the 2016-2017 academic year. 

Kelly explained that PASSHE institutions receive appropriations from the state, money that private colleges like Lafayette don’t get.

Tuition at private institutions like Lafayette hovers around $60,000 a year, whereas ESU charges around $20,000 a year for tuition, room and board. 

“What we’re seeing in comparison to private institutions is that we’re recruiting and able to provide a quality education at a different cost point,” Kelly said. 

ESU is deemed more affordable than private schools, and low-income students can use their financial aid to cover more college expenses than they could at a private university, but even with financial aid, some students are financially insecure. 

“If a student qualifies for a Pell grant and let’s say a Pennsylvania state grant, ESU is just right around full-time costs for the year, but those costs don’t always include things like books or professional attire for an internship or an interview. Suits are $200 or $300,” Kelly said. 

He also explained that some students are struggling to buy food and are hungry, even when they’re working part or even full-time. 

“I hear students talk about how they don’t have food, or they might have enough to get one meal a day. How can you go to class if you’re hungry? Students tell me I’m working full-time and finances are hard for me and that they’re not eating,” Kelly said. 

He’s concerned for students because if they’re not getting caloric and nutritional needs, they are not able to learn and function the way they would if they were eating regularly; though there are solutions here on campus. 

Warrior Pantry is a weekly food bank for students, and since its opening in 2017, it helps 40 to 50 students a week on average, according to Kelly. Food isn’t the only commodity they stock. 

The pantry is also stocking personal hygiene products like tampons or deodorant. 

The food pantry is not the only initiative to help financially insecure students. 

ESU is one of the least expensive universities in the PASSHE system and has made strides to control costs. 

For the 2018-2019 academic year, ESU costs $20,102 for tuition, room and board and places the university second to last in terms of price, with West Chester University at the lowest in the system, according to DOE. 

In addition to some of the lowest costs of attendance in the PASSHE system, ESU has Warrior Promise, a unique program that locks-in tuition for new students for four years, according to Bousquet. 

“We’ve done a better job to recruit students and to give them an opportunity that they may not have gotten,” Kelly said. “We’re always thinking about how we can provide the highest quality experiences inside or out of the classroom with the dollars we’ve been entrusted with.”

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