Students struggle with debt, cost of living
By Cal Colgan | email@example.com
Photos by Cal Colgan
Sitting in his bare living room without a couch, Jay Bergstrom said he can’t afford things like furniture until he pays off Flagler College.
Bergstrom withdrew from Flagler during last semester after emotional issues made him decide it would be best to take a break from school and go back home to Michigan.
“When I withdrew, I worked out the student loans and everything and I found out I owe Flagler $1100,” he said.
Bergstrom’s situation reflects a growing national trend of student debt.
According to FastWeb.com, a website that gives information to students about financial aid and scholarships, total student loan debt has exceeded total credit card debt for the first time, with the loan debt outstanding coming to about $830 billion as of this June.
Mark Kantrowitz, the publisher of FastWeb, said of that $665 billion of that money is in federal education loans and $168 billion is in private student loans.
Christopher Haffner, Flagler’s financial aid director, said that with the economy still struggling from the effects of the recession that started in 2007, there has been an increase in students who are seeking aid.
“It’s much more common in the last three years than before,” Haffner said. “We’ve never seen so many bankruptcies, bank foreclosures, layoffs. . . I never saw a foreclosure prior to three years ago, and I’ve worked in this office for 15 years.”
Haffner said Flagler offers a lower tuition than most other private institutions but about 87 percent of its students still receive some form of financial aid, with 55 percent getting need-based aid, including the Pell Grant.
“[The] Pell Grant indicates high need for the household that the student lives in, according to the [Free Application for Federal Student Aid] form,” Haffner said.
He said that this year, there are 750 Flagler students on the Pell Grant, 100 more than last year.
But Haffner said to be eligible for the Pell Grant, a student’s family contributions have to be below a certain cut off amount, in terms of assets and investments.
Bergstrom, whose parents both make about $90,000 a year, didn’t qualify.
He said in a year, he racked up $20,000 in loans because he had to take out money for tuition and living, as well as art supplies for his graphic design major. Bergstrom said $16,000 of that money was to help pay for his tuition.
“The rest [of the tuition money] was out of pocket,” he said.
Haffner said that students whose parents’ made too much the previous year for them to qualify for the need-based aid can always submit an appeal letter to the financial aid office.
“We make a lot of revisions to financial aid as people’s situation changes.”
But his mother gave him money for the first few months of his off-campus life, Bergstrom is on his own now that he is back in St. Augustine.
Bergstrom works practically full time. He said he’s trying to get more hours at his Kangaroo gas station job so he can eventually pay off Flagler and then transfer to a cheaper school.
But in order to do that, Bergstrom has had to cut back on his possessions. He said he is trying to sell his car to pay off some of his bills. He sleeps on a deflated air mattress, and he said his friend is donating him a couch. Bergstrom said although he would love to invite people over to his house to play games or watch a movie, he is just happy to have a roof over his head.
“At this point in my life, I will not hesitate to sell everything I have,” Bergstrom said.
Unlike Bergstrom, Erin Dunne was able to finish at Flagler. But earning her bachelor’s degree in secondary education cost Dunne more than student loans.
Dunne said because her parents didn’t help pay for her education or her cost of living in St. Augustine, she had to come up with the money from working both at Winn-Dixie and at the Proctor Library with Flagler’s work study program.
“Usually in the spring semester, I would have to pay $100 to $200 out of pocket because my student loans didn’t cover all of my credit hours,” she said.
Dunne said when she first came to Flagler, she was living in a studio apartment for $700 a month but she soon could not afford the rent. She said she slept at different friends’ houses until one of her professors found out she was homeless. The professor told the office of student services, which helped her move into the dorms.
But in order to live in the dorms, Dunne had to take out more money on her Stafford loan.
Dunne said that her life at Flagler became very stressful.
“I actually started to have panic attacks when I had really bad anxiety from it,” she said.
Although Kaela Amenta doesn’t have to worry as much as Dunne about having a place to live, her economic background makes college life difficult. Throughout most of her life, the Flagler sophomore and political science major’s family of six was middle class but basic necessities like food were not always easy to get.
“There were some days we couldn’t afford to go shopping and for dinner we’d just have mayonnaise sandwiches,” Amenta said.
When she got a $2300 refund, Amenta put aside some of the money for to pay for the rent and utilities for the small two-bedroom house where she lives in Lincolnville. But the $1500 refund she received from the Pell Grant wasn’t enough to pay off her debts to Flagler. Two weeks before this semester started, Amenta got a call from the business services office, telling her she still had to close out last year’s balance.
Amenta told business services she didn’t think she could afford to go back to Flagler and would transfer to St. Johns River Community College, but the office told her if she did that, they would take away the grant she received for going to Flagler.
“My bill went from $3500 to $7000 for all of last year that I owed,” Amenta said. “Basically, what it came down to was if I re-enrolled for Flagler, my new bill would still be $3500, so I took that.”
Amenta said her delivery job at Pizza Hut, where she works 30 to 40 hours a week, is helping to pay off her bill due in December, but working all week and taking 16 credit hours of classes has caused her to become invent different ways to get in sleep.
“I pretty much altered my sleeping patterns so I take 30 minute naps every 4 hours,” she said. “So now I have more time on my hands because I don’t really sleep.”
Amenta said that although she struggles to pay for her education and living expenses, she feels that she has learned more from her experiences than those Flagler students whose parents pay for everything.
“I feel kind of sorry for them because they’re never going to have those problems, . . . but one day they’re going to graduate Flagler High and they’re going to step out into the real world,” she said.
Bergstrom said although he can’t always relate to students whose parents pay for their tuition, he is still glad that he came to St. Augustine.
“Probably coming to Flagler was something I shouldn’t have done financially,” he said. “But at the same time, I came here and met a lot of great people and had a lot of great experiences, and the people in St. Augustine are what made me come back.”