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Georgia College Students Learning Hard Economics Lessons as Cost of Living Rises

A student walks past the campus green at Kennesaw State University. Lawmakers hope to lower the costs of attending Georgia’s public universities, but the cost of living remains high as inflation rises. (Ross Williams / Georgia Recorder)
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Gaggles of dogs frolicked about on Kennesaw State University’s campus green one Wednesday in April, wagging their tails as groups of students scratched their furry heads and tossed them tennis balls.

It was part of a university initiative to help students relieve some stress as they head into finals, and college students across the state are dealing with plenty of stress from academics, relationships, family issues, and, increasingly, from finances.

One of the students gathered on the green was Kevin Lopez, a member of the class of 2024. He’s paying his own way through college by working construction and says he feels the pinch of rising prices.

“Sometimes it does kind of affect my classwork, because obviously sometimes I get in late, and I really don’t have time because of work,” he said. “Sometimes it messes up my work schedule as well. It’s just kind of hard, I mean, like, being financially stable and being in school at the same time.”

The Georgia Board of Regents, which oversees the state’s public higher education system, announced this month it will not increase tuition for 25 of its 26 institutions, with the exception of Middle Georgia State University, which will see an increase of $17 per credit hour for in-state undergraduates and $64 for out-of-state undergrads.

Students like Lopez will also get some relief from the end of a fee instituted in 2009 to make up for budget cuts in the wake of the Great Recession. Lawmakers added $230 million to the state’s higher ed budget to allow for the cut, which will leave between $170 and $544 per semester in the pockets of Georgia students.

Because it was treated as a fee rather than tuition, students could not use the HOPE Scholarship to pay it, so getting rid of it is a big deal, said Caitlin Highland with the Georgia Budget and Policy Institute.

So is another budget change setting HOPE scholarship and grant awards to 90% of tuition. Previously awards varied from year to year and institution to institution. That will benefit an estimated 75,000 students across Georgia’s public and private universities, Highland said, saving students up to $780 a year.

Over the past 15 years, enrollment of students from families with low incomes in the university system has grown by 85%, according to GBPI. Four in 10 students attending University System of Georgia, Technical College System of Georgia and Georgia Independent College Association schools qualify for federal need-based Pell Grants.

Until now, Georgia has been one of only two states with no state-funded needs-based aid program, Highland said, but a bill awaiting Gov. Brian Kemp’s signature could change that.

“HB 1435 creates need-based completion grants for students who have completed at least 80 percent of their degree program but face financial hardship,” she said. “This presents an opportunity for the state to remove barriers that prevent Georgia’s students from accessing the economic opportunity that higher education programs can provide. Completion grants are a meaningful way for lawmakers to help students complete their degree programs when their financial aid options have been exhausted. The current version of the Fiscal Year 2023 budget includes an allocation of $10 million for the completion grant program.”

An education is still not cheap

Tuition and fees are the most expensive part of a college education, and Georgia students have it better than students in most other states with a relatively low average cost of $7,457 per semester for in-state tuition and fees compared with a national average of $9,349, according to educationdata.org.

Students who borrow money to attend college end up paying an average of just under $1,900 in interest each year and spend an average of 20 years paying off their loan.

Room and board don’t come cheap either – the average American student living on campus pays about $11,300 per year for housing, while living off campus costs about $10,600 on average.

And rents are way up across the country – in March, the average price to rent a one-bedroom grew 22.2% nationwide and 31.4% in Georgia, according to data from rent.com.

Kennesaw State junior Jack Stover stays in a house with four roommates, and his parents pay for half of his $600 share of the rent.

Stover says he’s grateful for the help, but he’s been cutting back in other ways – staying home instead of going out with his friends, buying his clothes from thrift stores and paring back his grocery budget.

There’s a stereotype about college kids surviving on instant noodles and junk food, but many say they are often unsure where their next meal will come from.

Educationdata.org found that 45% of students experience frequent food insecurity. More than half of students at two-year institutions say they worry about running out of food, as do 44% of 4-year students.

At the same time, the consumer price index for food grew 8.8% in the year ending in March, the largest 12-month increase since 1981, according to the Bureau for Labor Statistics.

Stover said college has taught him to buy groceries in bulk when he can and to watch out for good deals.

“Kroger’s got good prices on chicken breasts, so I just get like a pound or two of chicken breasts and split that into like three to five days and then get some rice, you can make anything with that, put it on tortillas,” he said. “I know how to shop on a budget now. You kind of learn to shop on a budget and get the most out of it.”

The price increase in gasoline dwarfs that of food – it rose 48% between March 2021 and March 2022, the BLS found.

Kennesaw freshman Destinee Jordan lives on-campus, but she still needs to fill up her tank at least once a week to get to and from her job, and luckily, her parents are able to help her with gas money.

“We try to work as much as we can and try to save from that, and honestly, my parents help, but like even with that, it still is a little challenging to try to get through college as a college student, I’m not going to lie,” she said. “Things do come up. We’re kind of starting to be adults and growing up. So, we started to have things to pay for, like bills and all of that, so it can kind of get challenging at times, but we just try to work and save as much as we possibly can.”

Georgia Recorder is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Georgia Recorder maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor John McCosh for questions: info@georgiarecorder.com. Follow Georgia Recorder on Facebook and Twitter.

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