The high cost of higher education

I am scared for my financial future. I’m not necessarily scared for my financial future when I graduate from school, but for my immediate financial future. I am an unemployed graduate student who receives less financial aid than is necessary to survive. Unfortunately, I don’t think I’m alone.

Universities and colleges should reward graduate students with more financial aid or provide more resources for scholarships to stay current in the global economy and to promote a better workforce. Currently, a bachelor’s degree is less prestigious than it was 10 years ago. This isn’t to demean the importance of a college degree. However, people are attending and graduating from college at higher rates than they were in our parents’ generations.

It is extremely difficult to get financial aid in graduate school. Federal Pell Grants are no longer an option. Scholarships are limited. The only financial aid readily available to graduate students consists of loans and assistantships. At Portland State University these are a rare commodity.

Many of the PSU graduate programs, including mine, award their assistantships only once a year. This makes the process extremely competitive. The short time it takes to complete a graduate degree also complicates the matter. I could potentially be finished next fall, which is the first term of the graduate assistantships I applied for. If you don’t apply when you are first admitted (or beforehand, if you start in the spring term), you probably won’t receive an assistantship for most of your graduate career.

The other financial aid for graduate students is student loans. Loan, coincidentally, is a four-letter word. Student loans are a stylish way of giving money to the government. They pile up faster than you can say “Free Application for Student Aid,” especially if they are your only financial resource.

Student loans fall into two categories: subsidized and unsubsidized. Subsidized loans are preferable to unsubsidized loans because the government pays the interest while you are in school. Legislation was passed last year that will increase the interest rate on unsubsidized loans to 8.5 percent. This equals out to a lose-lose situation in some cases, especially if you plan on pursuing further education.

Loans usually don’t cover the entire cost of school either. At the beginning of this term, I was only receiving an unsubsidized loan to make my post-graduate life a little easier. I complicated the matter by taking nine hours of classes instead of my previous terms of six hours. My unsubsidized loan didn’t cover all of the cost, which meant that I had to take out a subsidized loan. I filled out a request for the full amount, which was not processed until school had already started, which meant that I was without books for two weeks. My professors were hardly sympathetic to this problem.

One of my many post-baccalaureate jobs was in retail. Before I started class again, I talked to the customers about my excitement for graduate school. One of the customers gave me the most startling, and true, revelation: “I was poorer as a graduate student than I was as an undergraduate.” I figured it was just because it was more work. Unfortunately, I have learned that it is because there are fewer opportunities to receive money.

Next term I want to take 12 hours, but I’m not sure if I can afford it. I have looked at scholarships, but I am eligible for very few. The ones that I am eligible for are only awarded to one person per year, which constitutes even more competition than a graduate assistantship. There need to be more resources and outlets for graduate students.

I don’t blame the financial aid department for the lack of funds, even though it can be an uphill battle trying to get answers. Financial aid departments are like banks that don’t have a customer-based tracking system. It is one of the last specters of the federal bureaucratic system: No one knows where your money is, and individual employees will answer your simple question of “Where’s my money?” in 10 different ways.

Millions of students are in the same boat as me, but this is hardly reassurance. Graduate school is rewarding for the future, if it doesn’t cripple you financially.