GAINESVILLE – Rachel Edington knew paying for college wasn’t going to be easy. So she built a financial game plan years before she even considered applying to the University of Texas at Austin.
Now she’s in her first year as a psychology major. But beginning in the eighth grade, the Gainesville High School alumna took dual-credit courses at North Central Texas College, accumulating 38 transferable credit hours.
“NCTC classes are cheaper, way cheaper than UT classes,” Edington said. “It allowed me to have a higher GPA and be halfway done with college at this point, even though it’s my first semester.”
As college drew closer, she applied for numerous scholarships and researched affordable living options — eventually deciding to share an apartment almost a half-hour drive to campus with four other roommates to minimize rent.
Edington began a part-time job when she arrived in Austin. However, her plan to survive on a combination of family aid, savings and current income wasn’t enough. She began working 40-hour weeks. She was soon diagnosed with a stress-related autoimmune disease. She had to stop working and go on bed rest following an increase in her symptoms’ severity. To compensate for the lost income, she was forced to take out extensive student loans.
Now, she said she faces the choice of managing her illness or going deeper into debt.
Edington is one of the millions of higher education students across the U.S. struggling with soaring tuition and living costs. Students say increased financial strain and limited post-graduate job prospects paint a bleak prospect of achieving life milestones.
“At this point, it’s hard to get an apartment as it is,” Edington said. “I can’t imagine renting or buying a house.”
Currently, a public university’s undergraduate tuition is divided into two types: statutory and designated tuition. Statutory tuition is set by the Texas Education Code and requires public universities to charge resident students at least $50 per credit hour, with nonresident students paying higher rates. Designated tuition is an additional payment set by an institution’s governing board to cover the school’s necessary operating costs.
The Texas Legislature deregulated tuition rates in 2003 following a $10 million budget shortfall, which enabled colleges to charge different statutory and designated rates. Since 2005, total tuition costs have increased by over 136% for a degree at UT Austin.
“It deters students, especially those who are minorities, black and brown students, from coming to college and going straight to work and taking care of their families,” UT Liberal Arts major Anthony Larraga said. “It’s more money that they can’t afford.”
Larraga, a first-generation Hispanic student and a GHS alumnus, said he views UT as a prime example of universities forcing students into decades-long debt.
UT offers subsidized and unsubsidized federal student loans as part of financial aid packages to students. However, Larraga believes the base tuition costs and additional interest rates make paying them back for students with no outside support unobtainable — and that’s only if they can financially qualify for it in the first place.
“Even though [universities] say they’re going to help you pay for it, they’re not really helping you pay for it because you’re still going to pay back into the loans,” Larraga said.
Although Larraga took out several individual and family loans directly through UT, he secured a scholarship large enough to pay for these undergraduate loans. However, he’s aspiring to go to law school and his scholarship won’t cover the dramatic tuition raise for graduate students.
“I don’t want to think about that yet,” Larraga said.
Edington estimated it will take 15 to 20 years just to pay back her current loans.
One of the biggest focuses in this year’s Texas Legislature is over education, like using state tax funds to support enrollment to private primary and secondary schools. There are over 90 other bills addressing subjects such as scholarships and student loans.
Gainesville High School, the largest public high school in Cooke County, offers multiple programs to aid high school students with creating competitive college and scholarship applications. The school regularly hosts events aiding parents of first-generation students with filling out paperwork for the Free Application for Federal Student Aid.
“We always think students know these things,” GHS counselor Jill Brown said. “They have no idea until you actually start talking with them.”
GHS students may use the Red River Promise program, which allows graduating high school seniors to receive compensation for tuition costs and fees for credit courses for up to 60 credit hours or two years at one of seven partner universities in the region, including North Central Texas College.
However, students like Edington and Larraga who wish to attend non-partner universities in the state — as well as out-of-state — for their post-Associate education may face big financial challenges.
“With those who really want to go to an outside school, even a private in-state, you have to talk to them about how they will do that,” Brown said. “It’s not what you want to do, it’s what you can do.”
Brown began her educational career at GHS over 30 years ago, coming back to the school in 2019. She said while schools may offer seemingly lucrative financial aid packages for tuition, it’s imperative for students to consider the rising cost of living - especially when deciding what city to attend college in.
“You try not to shoot their little dreams down, but you need them to understand what that process is going to look like going forward,” Brown said.
Tuition costs for universities in the North Texas region that are not in the Red River Promise program are just as high as Texas universities further away. A semester’s tuition at the University of North Texas is $5,592 for an English degree, which is almost $100 more than the same degree at UT.
But it’s not just tuition that burdens college students like Edington. Rent and grocery prices have skyrocketed in the past three years, with the annual inflation rate in the United States jumping from 1.4% to 7.1% from 2020 to 2021. In June of 2022, the monthly rate peaked at 9.1%, which was the highest monthly rate since 1981.
To offset the price of college and get a head start, GHS students participate in the dual credit program.
“We have a great dual-credit program, right now we have 215 of our kids taking some form of dual credit at NCTC,” GHS Principal David Glancy said. “NCTC dual credit is really practical, we have a lot of kids get that paid for so that’s usually the direction we like to go.”
Students who participate in the program can earn up to an Associate’s Degree, skipping semesters of mandatory university core classes. The program also helps students form college applications as competitive as those from schools that offer dozens of Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate courses.
Texas public schools are funded by a mixture of local property taxes and state funds. The amount of state funds a district receives per child depends on the average attendance rate, with schools earning $6,160 for each student who meets the attendance threshold.
Sen. Mayes Middleton, R-Galveston, is the primary author of SB 176, which would establish a tax credit system for parents wishing to use state funds for private school tuition.
“No one knows what is better for a child’s education than their parents,” said a post from Middleton’s Facebook page. “Educational choice is about money following each child – so parents can select the best educational options, whether it’s public school, private school, homeschooling, tutoring, educational therapies, community college classes, online courses, curriculum or any other educational opportunities.”
Critics argue the legislation will weaken public schools already struggling with a statewide teacher shortage by diverting state funds to private schools. They say the shrinking funding would restrict public schools from expanding programs such as AP and IB.
“We’re looking to expand,” Glancy said. “If we had a staff member for the kids, we’ll do it. We try to give our kids every opportunity we can and our counselors do a fantastic job of getting our kids there.”
Edington is now off bedrest and beginning her second semester at UT. She said she’s preparing to spend her time at college sports bars and golf courses – however, as an employee rather than a customer. She’s working two jobs in addition to returning to a full-time class schedule.
“It depends on how well I do after college to see if it was worth it or not,” Edington said. “I think I very well might regret it in the future if my career doesn’t work out the way I want it to. I’m gonna push through and try my best and hope that everything works out.”
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