The Rising Need for Scholarships

The numbers are impressive. Over the past eight years, 42,000 private scholarship awards have been given to Iowa State University students. They have received almost $60 million in scholarship monies that have been created by the university’s alumni and friends.

While those figures are expected to continually grow, it’s not nearly enough, according to Roberta Johnson, director of financial aid at Iowa State.

“The debt load of our students is one of the highest in the country,” Johnson said. “That’s why raising funds for scholarship support is so vitally important to this university.

“I can think of no better investment than a scholarship for the next generation of students.”

Rising costs and debt

As impressive as the scholarship figures are, the costs of a college education and the resulting debt are increasing.

Some of the facts and figures Johnson highlighted in a presentation to the Board of Regents, State of Iowa, show how quickly things have turned financially for Iowa State students.

At the beginning of the millennium, the average loan indebtedness for Iowa State students stood at just under $22,000. Just four years later (2005-06 academic year), that same figure jumped to almost $31,000.

Johnson says there are a number of factors associated with that increase including more students studying abroad; students and parents who took advantage of low interest rates earlier in the decade; and students taking longer to finish their degree.

But a primary reason for a steep jump in student loan indebtedness is rising tuition costs. As state appropriations for higher education have declined, the shortfalls were made up through tuition increases, including some double-digit jumps.

And as tuition costs rose, financial aid resources from the federal and state governments dropped.

“We’ve seen costs rise tremendously and state support decrease dramatically,” said Johnson, who has worked in financial aid for 27 years. “There are hundreds of students at Iowa State who are eligible for financial aid but for whom we don’t have any funding.”

Johnson and her staff have been able to hold average student loan indebtedness at around $31,000 in recent years. The percentage of those students who have borrowed to finance their education, though, has increased to 72 percent (an increase of 5 percent since the beginning of the decade).

It doesn’t appear that the coming years will be any better. The uncertain economy is placing additional stress on budgets throughout campus. Students and their families are facing a similar meltdown. Every day Johnson and the financial aid staff come face-to-face with prospective and current undergraduate and graduate students whose financial needs continue to outstrip assistance available from federal, state, local and private sources.

That became even more apparent to Johnson on March 1, the date on which the federal government traditionally assigns a contribution level for families.

“The percentage of families who can’t afford to pay anything for their children’s college education has increased substantially this year,” Johnson said. “Our goal is to see if we can still keep an education at Iowa State University affordable for as many of these students as possible.”

The times they are a-changin’

Change is inevitable — even at colleges and universities. And that is particularly true when it comes time to pay the bill.

Johnson remembers her own experience as an Iowa State student in the late 1970s.

“I would write a check for $515 for a quarter and that was my whole educational expense,” she recalled.

In 2011, $515 did not pay for a student’s books for one semester. The financial aid office estimates that it costs an in-state student over $18,000 a year for tuition, fees, and room and board. That doesn’t include study abroad expenses or expenses incurred for a summer internship — programs that have become more of a requirement for students than an option.

Some majors, such as architecture, are five-year programs. Engineering students pay a differential tuition rate their junior and senior years.

“Very few people have that amount of money sitting around,” Johnson said, “and it makes it difficult for many of our families.”

Another change — few students work their way through college, totally paying for college through work study and summer jobs.

“We hear a lot from parents and grandparents wondering why their student can’t work their way through college. They say ‘I did it, why can’t they?’” Johnson said. “It would take a college student a long time to work to earn $18,000 a year for four years.

“It’s just impossible for someone to be a full-time student and earn enough to work their way through any four-year college.”

Appreciative students

Many students do work to assist with their bills. One such student is Stephen Miskell, who worked three different jobs while attending Des Moines Area Community College.

“It was trying at times to get all the work in, spend time with my family and still get in my studies,” he said.

Despite his commitments, Miskell was able to graduate with his associate’s degree. Even with that success, he was nervous about how he would connect all the dots when he transferred to Iowa State as a business economics major. So when he was encouraged to apply for a Roy J. Carver Charitable Trust Scholarship at Iowa State, it piqued his interest.

“When the letter came in the mail saying I was a recipient, I was bouncing off the walls I was so excited,” he remembers.

Miskell is hardly alone in his appreciation for the private support he receives from Iowa State benefactors. Jamison Arends had his heart set on attending Iowa State, but those hopes seemed unrealistic because of his family’s finances. The best he said he could hope for was coming to Ames after he completed two years at a community college.

Then Arends heard about the Hixson Opportunity Awards. The program provides half-tuition and fees for up to eight semesters at Iowa State. The scholarship has enabled Arends not only to attend Iowa State but also become active in a variety of student organizations.

“Without this program I would have a completely different world now,” he said. “How do you thank this woman (Christina Hixson, the program’s founder and sole trustee of the Lied Foundation Trust)? She gave me and so many others a way to go to this school.”

Fellow student Jessica Meredith says Iowa State’s scholarship program was the deciding factor for her staying at Iowa State. Meredith, who comes from a single parent household, originally came to Iowa State as an architecture major but soon changed her mind and became undeclared.

“I was thinking about transferring to a community college or a different school,” the now senior construction engineering major said. “But the main reason I stayed at Iowa State were the scholarships I received.

“It helped me to not only stay on campus but led to even more experiences than I would have gotten anywhere else. I wouldn’t have been able to be involved as I have been without the scholarship monies I have received.”

Johnson is also appreciative of every scholarship established at Iowa State.

“It would be terrific if we had even more, particularly scholarships that were as unrestricted as possible,” she said. “Flexibility is critical, allowing us to get the money to the right student.”

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