Families cope with tuition hikes

May 3, 2011, 3:04 a.m.

March 15, 2011 was not a particularly important day for most people, but that Tuesday was emblazoned into the mind of Cristal Garcia ’11 and her family: it was the final tuition payment deadline for Garcia’s final quarter at Stanford. But more than that, it marked a symbolic, though not exactly triumphant, end to the Chicago native’s four-year battle to pay for college.

“I think tuition is really getting out of hand,” said Omelia Garcia, Cristal’s mother and a parent of three in Chicago’s western suburbs. She was barely finishing up the college payments for her oldest daughter when Cristal got into Stanford. To swing the cost, Garcia had to mortgage one of the family’s houses — a revenue source — to pay the college bill.

Families cope with tuition hikes
(ANASTASIA YEE/The Stanford Daily)

“It’s been so hard, but somehow we manage,” Omelia Garcia said. “Somehow we’ll manage. We’ve got just one more quarter at Stanford.”

Tuition hikes are not a new topic in discussions about higher education; headlines around the country scream about the skyrocketing costs of college, pointing to upwards of 30 percent increases at public institutions in California and across-the-board slashes to states’ higher education budgets.

Private institutions like Stanford have been shielded from such dramatic year-to-year increases but have still seen substantial raises. From 2000 to the present, Stanford’s price of admission each year has risen a little more than 4.5 percent on average. The $52,341 sticker price for tuition plus room and board next year is more than double the cost students paid 30 years ago.

In 2008, Stanford announced its most significant increase in financial aid to date. Under this program, families whose annual income are less than $100,000 a year are asked to contribute a maximum of $12,500, while no parental contribution is expected of families who earned below $60,000. Other elite schools like Harvard University, Yale University and Pomona College spearheaded similar aid packages.

While Stanford’s aid expansion aims to help the middle class, individuals hovering at the margins of aid thresholds are being hit with a storm of escalating college costs, decreased funds for higher education and personal economic instability. Even financial aid can’t remedy the picture for those individuals.

The Garcia family is right on this threshold, making them especially sensitive to the yearly tuition increases. The changing aid thresholds have meant that Garcia’s financial bracket is in quarterly flux, depending year to year on how much her family makes.

Because her parents are both self-employed and do not have stable incomes, the moving aid target creates a situation where Garcia says that “money is always on my mind.”

In her freshman year, Garcia’s family had to pay $34,800, nearly the full cost of tuition. Since the 2008 aid policy change, Garcia is eligible for more aid — though her quarterly contributions vary, depending on that year’s household income.

Parents whose incomes lie beyond the financial aid cutoff also feel the impact of the annual increases. Mien Shih, a Saratoga parent who put three children through Stanford without financial aid, is one of dwindling minority of parents who pay the full price of Stanford admission.

Only about 20 percent of Stanford students receive no aid or grants and pay full freight, according to Karen Cooper, director of financial aid. Since about 2008, approximately 80 percent of undergraduates do not pay Stanford’s full sticker price.

Nationally, about one third of full-time students pay the full price of college with no grant assistance, according to the College Board’s Trends in College Pricing 2010 report.

About half of the undergraduate student body receives need-based financial aid today, which is up from a typical year in the 1990s where only about 41 percent of students qualified, according to Cooper.

Shih paid for his first daughter, a 2000 grad, his son, a 2004 grad and now his third child, Tiffany Shih ’11. He has paid more than half a million dollars in college fees to Stanford over the past 15 years.

Tiffany Shih says that while she is peripherally aware of increasing college prices, they have little impact on her immediate life.

“In the end, my parent’s philosophy is to get the best education you can and to worry about the money later,” she said. “I’m sure it was more of a factor for my parents than for me. But my parents always made education a priority.”

“Paying for three Stanford students is a big thing,” she added. “But they’ve managed to make it work, and they try to keep us from worrying about it.”

Money, however, remains a concern for Garcia. Although she has taken advantage of Stanford’s myriad opportunities — as an International Relations major, she went to Stanford outposts in Oxford, Chile and Florence — she said that some things had to give. Bogged down with 10 hours of work-study a week, four classes, extracurriculars and graduate scholarship hunts that became “almost like a hobby,” Garcia’s social life took a hit.

“We all sacrifice things to come to college,” said Garcia. “I sacrificed having a social life.”

The rate of tuition increase is in the hands of the Board of Trustees, who consult with the University president and financial aid offices to determine tuition costs. In 1996, when the Board increased tuition by 4 percent — the lowest tuition rise in almost three decades at the time — Trustee Charles Ogletree ’74 MA ’75, then a member of the board’s finance committee, said trustees were “mindful that the burden on the middle class in trying to support children pursuing higher education has increased.”

He said that the Board had tried to balance “business judgment and compassion.”

According to Omelia Garcia, they’ve had mixed success, despite good intentions.          “We have never asked the government for a penny from welfare. We worked our way up, learned the language and I think other people can,” said Garcia, who hails from Durango, Mexico. “But I think college should be easier. I hope that the government will do something for the kids who need more help.”

For the time being, however, students like Shih, who pay full tuition, say that while Stanford is expensive, they’ve gotten what they’ve paid for.

“I don’t know if it’s too expensive,” Shih said. “But I think that the difference between me going here and me going to a UC was worth the difference in cost.”

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