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'If you can't pay, you can't stay': The skyrocketing cost of college has transformed the student experience

In a country with well over a trillion dollars in student loan debt and ever-increasing college-related costs, ASU students reflect on the sacrifices they've made to pay for college

If you can't pay, you can't stay — SPM Automation Issue

'If you can't pay, you can't stay': The skyrocketing cost of college has transformed the student experience

In a country with well over a trillion dollars in student loan debt and ever-increasing college-related costs, ASU students reflect on the sacrifices they've made to pay for college

To any passing observer, Alex* may have seemed like just another ASU student slipping out of their dorm to hook up with an online stranger in the dead of night. Except this wasn’t a mere hookup. Alex was going to meet their first client, and they had a knife hidden in their left sock — just in case things went south.

Before then, the high-achieving student thought they had their whole life planned out ahead of them: earn straight As, graduate at the top of their high school class, obtain a degree and someday attain financial stability. Getting kicked out of their abusive home, living on the street and becoming a sex worker was never part of the plan.

But nevertheless, Alex found themself completely on their own. And despite financial aid representatives’ previous assurances that the University would fully cover their college costs as a low-income student, Alex unexpectedly found a $6,000 bill in semesterly expenses with their name printed on it.

“I don’t have a home,” they said. “I don’t have anyone to go back to. So it was either I lose everything, or I stay at ASU and figure my shit out.”

After being stuck in limbo with the University’s financial aid department for a few months, Alex was desperate. They felt as if they’d exhausted all of the legal means to earn money through their low-paying food service job, and the tuition bill’s final payment date was coming up on them fast.

When Alex’s final financial aid offer from the University wasn’t as large as they anticipated, they quickly learned that paying to keep their academic plan on track was something they’d have to figure out on their own.

Alex met their first client as a sex worker not long after. They used the $800 they earned from an older man that first “brutal” night to pay tuition for the classes they attended the next morning.

“People who say that money doesn’t buy you happiness don’t understand what it’s like to cry over your bills,” they said. “Because it does, it really does. Money buys you the financial support that you need in order to be safe, stable and secure.”

Ignore the price tag

Amid high inflation rates, mass layoffs and fears of an impending recession, the cost of college is still higher than ever before. With a collective $1.75 trillion in student loan debt, the U.S. has the second-highest average student debt in the world behind only the United Kingdom, according to online lending marketplace Lending Tree. Many students still hold the deeply rooted view that a college degree is the golden ticket to the American ideal of comfortable middle-class life.

This view still holds weight: College diplomas can indeed increase chances of economic success, but graduates must be able to reap a return on investment to recoup the skyrocketing costs of their education.

“To what extent is the American dream actually possible?” asked Kevin Correa, a clinical assistant professor in the Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College who specializes in higher education. Correa is a former first-generation and low-income college student.

“To what extent is America fulfilling its promise of a place where people can succeed no matter their background?” Correa said. “Because when we look at the data, statistically, that hasn’t been true. Finances still tend to be the number one predictor of whether or not people get a bachelor’s degree. And the question is: Is that the country that we want?”

While the national battle over the Biden administration’s student loan relief program rages in the courts, some ASU students, like Alex, argue that the eye-watering cost of college is hindering their ability to enjoy their experience at a university that prides itself on its supposed affordability for all students.

“ASU is steadfast in our commitment to our charter principles of offering an exceptional university experience that is accessible to any qualified student,” said ASU spokesperson Veronica Sanchez in an email. “A critical component to accessibility is the cost of tuition and fees, and there are many successful financial aid and scholarship programs in place that ensure that more students who are first generation and/or from lower income families can attend ASU with little to no financial burden.”

Despite University President Michael Crow’s praise for the school’s “modest tuition, high financial aid” model, ASU’s tuition and fees fall on the higher end of the spectrum among four-year public universities nationwide, according to data from U.S. News and World Report. This academic year, in-state tuition and fees at the University are almost 20% higher than the in-state national average, while out-of-state tuition and fees at ASU are almost 35% higher than the corresponding national average.

READ MORE: ASU president proposes tuition increase for 2023-2024 academic year

At ASU, 55% of students graduate with some level of debt, according to a 2021 report by the Arizona Board of Regents, with the average debt for undergraduates rolling in at $24,646.

The ivory tower

For centuries, colleges were originally meant only for the wealthy. From their founding in the Middle Ages, universities were established to educate the sons of Europe’s wealthiest men for professional careers in fields like law and medicine. As the children of the elite, these students could easily afford to spend a few years out of the workforce to enjoy their college experience. Those who weren’t as privileged learned crafts from their fathers and headed straight into the workforce instead.

Despite the progress made in improving accessibility to higher education, Valeria Reyes, a first-generation college student, said the divide between financially stable and unstable students remains.

“The system is created specifically for one type of student,” the senior studying French and justice studies said. “If you’re not that student, then you’re going to find yourself struggling and having many challenges.”

Like many first-generation students, Reyes spends her time performing a precarious “balancing act” between the heavy course loads of her two majors and the demands of her part-time job at the University. When she can’t juggle all her duties simultaneously, free time, club involvements and outings with friends are always the first to go.

“It can be stressful,” she said. “I have so much work. It’s like having two jobs — I have my part-time job, but also, school is another job on the side.”

While most of Reyes’ paycheck goes to her basic necessities, she sets money aside for her student loans by relegating herself to strict budgeting habits.

But for Reyes, college didn’t always seem like another task to check off her extensive list. When she first came to ASU as a bright-eyed freshman, the University seemed to be full of promise. Reyes was the first member of her family to attend college, and she was thankful to know various scholarships would cover the bulk of her tuition.

But after only a few months at ASU, Reyes quickly realized that college would be much more expensive than she anticipated. Non-tuition-related expenses from things like books and transportation piled up rapidly — but because her family was unable to save money for her degree, there was nothing to pay the academic bills with.

READ MORE: Pay to park: ASU has a parking problem, and it's costing students hundreds

Without the guidance those with college-educated parents receive while navigating the hidden costs of college, Reyes thumbed through the University’s financial support systems by herself. In the end, Reyes took out her first student loan during her freshman year.

First-generation students are among the most overburdened by student loans — along with Black, Latine and low-income students — and they’re also more likely to work throughout college.

“First-generation students have tremendous resilience and drive and ambition to do whatever it takes to get a college degree, no matter how many hours of hard work that requires and how many sacrifices they need to make,” Correa said. “They’re willing to do what it takes because they know that that college degree means so much not only to them, but also to their family.”

But the extra social, financial and psychological challenges that first-generation students encounter throughout the college journey also make it more likely that they’ll drop out, even though a degree could contribute to upward economic mobility and achieving the increasingly illusory American Dream.

One in three first-generation students will drop out of college within their first three years, according to a 2019 report from the National Center for Education Statistics.

And even among those who make it to graduation, the hardships don’t stop. The heavier burden of student debt that weighs upon many first-generation students is a major barrier to class mobility.

“Prior to coming to college, I didn’t think that money was as big of an issue as it appears to be now,” Reyes said. “But that (loan) is definitely something I worry about, especially now that I’m about to graduate.”

Beyond tuition

Growing up, ASU was never Anne Perry’s dream school.

Phoenix is thousands of miles away from Perry’s native Florida, and the Valley’s dry desert air and dusty terrain were a jarring contrast to the humid summers and marshy swamps that characterized home. But the sophomore studying sports journalism found herself drawn to the quiet beauty of the desert and the limitless professional opportunities she could reap in Phoenix, a premier sports hub and home to one of the best journalism schools in the country.

Perry knew covering out-of-state expenses at the University might be tight on her single mom’s salary, but she was confident that financial aid would be able to make her dream achievable. She promptly reserved on-campus housing on the downtown campus and prepared herself for the cross-country move and “completely different experience” that was to come.

But only one month before she was slated to move into her ASU dorm, Perry’s lack of sufficient financial aid left her with paying for out-of-state tuition, on-campus housing and living expenses — something that would be impossible given her family’s financial situation.

Even as Perry quietly resigned herself to attending a more affordable in-state university, her mother secretly spent time working out a solution to the family’s financial dilemma mere weeks before the fall semester was scheduled to start.

“And then my mom was like, ‘I have this idea. Let me know if you hate it, but if you really want to go (to ASU), then this is the only solution,’” Perry said. “And at that point, I would’ve done anything to go.”

After a month of deliberation, Perry finally landed in Arizona for her freshman year at ASU. But that wasn’t until she canceled her housing reservation at Taylor Place, a dorm on the Downtown Phoenix campus, which allowed her to shave roughly $5,000 off her lengthy list of college-related expenses. Instead of living on campus like many other freshmen in downtown Phoenix, Perry would be living farther from campus with a family friend.

“Sometimes, college is more about the financial than the educational,” Perry said. “People who can pay for these costs — the upper class — can just come, and it’s not much of a concern to them. But especially when you’re lower income, you have to work harder to be able to just go to college.”

Beyond the soaring cost of tuition, students are also expected to shell out enough money to pay for a multitude of other college-related costs. In fact, most students who take out loans do so to pay for non-tuition-related expenses, such as housing, books, food and transportation, according to public policy think tank New America.

At ASU, on-campus housing rates at their most expensive can amount to nearly $19,800 every school year, and meal plans tack on thousands more. Even if students decide to dodge on-campus housing costs by living in non-ASU housing close to campus, gentrification and rapid development across the Valley have led to a barrage of rent spikes.

In 2021, Phoenix’s rent hikes were among the highest in the nation, according to the Arizona Republic. Since then, rents have continued to skyrocket. Downtown Tempe and downtown Phoenix now rank among the most expensive places to rent in the Valley, and they’re also home to ASU’s two largest campuses.

READ MORE: Market failure: 'It falls on all of us to end the housing crisis'

In addition, high inflation rates have caused the cost of non-tuition-related expenses to soar, but wages haven’t kept pace. While workers have been earning more dollars every hour, their wages have actually declined over the last 17 months when accounting for inflation.

Though various scholarships cover much of her tuition, Perry works two jobs to pay for other college expenses and necessities like food and books. Even with the extra income, she and her mom sometimes find themselves scrambling when bills are due.

“The cost of college is something I expected when I came into it, but I didn’t realize exactly what paying that amount of money would really be like,” she said.

Financial... aid?

Avion Wick’s mom had died over a year ago. But in some sense, she was still alive — at least in the eyes of the U.S. Department of Education.

As the sophomore majoring in mass communication and media studies looked over his federal student aid award letter for the 2022-2023 school year, he found the department had based its calculations on his parents’ 2020 financial information, when his mom was still alive. As a result, the department had used the six-figure income his mom received to determine how much financial aid he’d be awarded.

Except his mom was no longer alive, and his family was no longer making anywhere near that level of money.

But to the Department of Education, the change in Wick’s circumstances did not matter. As a student paying for the University out of pocket, Wick’s financial aid award was much lower than he needed to keep his head above water. And the remaining tuition and fees he now had to pay threatened to drag him under.

“Very quickly, I realized that financially, I’m not going to be able to attend college as long as I wanted to, go as in depth as I wanted to,” he said. “It changes a lot of people’s minds on what they can and can’t do and how much they can do.”

Wick had already been struggling to pay the barrage of costs associated with attending the University as an out-of-state student. He knew his financial situation came with “ups and downs,” so he sacrificed what he could for the price of a degree — even if it meant missing out on many hallmarks of his ideal college experience.

Instead of cheering in the stands at raucous football games and partying through sleepless nights, Wick found himself working a full-time job, packing 22 credits into one semester and living farther from campus to find cheaper housing.

“That allows me to just survive in a crazy expensive area like Phoenix,” he said.

But with the arrival of his financial aid award letter, there now seemed to be more downs than ups. Wick’s financial benefits from his father’s military service had run out, and this academic year’s 4% tuition increase for out-of-state students brought out-of-state tuition to nearly $30,000.

Ultimately for Wick, deciding whether to continue a four-year track at ASU came down to the choice between a mountain of debt or a degree.

Looking forward to a “new start” at ASU after spending his last year of high school learning online, Wick’s hopes have slowly slipped away with his decision this semester to withdraw from his original and exclusively on-campus major, journalism, to his current degree track on ASU’s online program, which was more affordable for him.

For the sake of his financial needs, he’s charted out an intensive course load that will allow him to obtain his bachelor’s degree in three years — receiving his diploma by the time he’s 20 years old.

“When I came to ASU, I did not expect to be leaving so fast because of the financial burden that it is to stay for all four years,” he said. “Now, it definitely feels like I am just anyone else taking classes in front of a computer.”

For decades, federally funded financial aid has failed to keep up with the cost of college. Pell Grants — federal financial aid packages meant to provide money for students who demonstrate exceptional financial need — haven’t kept up with the soaring cost of college. From 2000 to 2020, average tuition and fees at public four-year institutions like ASU, which is the most affordable type of college for bachelor’s degrees, doubled, but maximum Pell Grant awards have only increased by 29%, according to data from NerdWallet.

In addition, the intricacies of the financial aid and loan processes can puzzle many students and keep them from attaining financial stability.

“If you can’t pay your tuition, you literally can’t stay,” Correa said. “You literally can’t continue your education. There’s certainly things that ASU does to help with that, but at the end of the day, that is the number one reason why students are unable to complete their degrees: They simply can’t afford it.”

*This student's name has been changed due to privacy concerns.

Edited by Alexis Moulton, Camila Pedrosa, Sam Ellefson and Greta Forslund.

This story is part of The Automation Issue, which was released on March 15, 2023. See the entire publication here.

Reach the reporter at and follow @madelineynguyen on Twitter.

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