Who makes floats anymore?
If you're one of nearly 2,000 Virginia Tech students scraping for college money, you don't have much time for decorating parade floats or other traditional college pastimes
by Su Clauson-Wicker
Keith Wilson (ME '95) has no romantic illusions about coal mines; he knows they're dirty, potentially hazardous, and the work makes his back ache. He knows what it's like to ride the battery-powered mine cart into the black void in the morning and out again at night and miss daylight entirely. But Wilson also knows that coal mining can pay well. Anytime in the past four years he's had a break from college, Wilson has been in Tazewell County mines earning school money. In the summer and over Christmas breaks, he has worked 13 out of every 14 days, shoveling coal, moving rocks, spreading rock dust to keep down the deadly coal dust. When he's being upbeat, Wilson says the hard labor helps him develop big pectorals without working out in the gym. When he's not upbeat, Wilson says that, between engineering classes and mining, he feels like he's never had a vacation. Wilson holds a 3.8 QCA, but says his lack of co-op work experience on a related job could hurt his chances of being offered a mechanical engineering job when he graduates in May. "If I'd co-oped, I would have gotten a lot of good experience, but I wouldn't have made as much money," he says. "I'm just a mine laborer, but I make $14 an hour plus overtime. That goes a long way toward paying my tuition." Like many students at Virginia Tech and around the nation, Wilson needs more money than he has available in scholarships, loans, and family contributions. Early on, he made the decision to work to help out his parents, who are sending his sister to nursing school. This is not the first time Wilson's decision has been influenced by finances. When Wilson was a junior in high school, his father lost his mining job, and Keith decided to defer Virginia Tech. He attended the local community college, where he had a full scholarship. Wilson picked up his mining job after his first year, in a program former Consolidation Coal Co. senior vice president Eustace Frederick (MINE ENG '52) was instrumental in starting.
One in 10 Tech students need additional aid
Sixty-five percent of Virginia Tech's students receive financial aid. But after those funds or loans have been given out, one in every 10 Tech students still doesn't know where he or she will get the money to finish the school year. Federal loans, grants, scholarships, family resources, and federal work-study allotments simply won't cover the whole load. Once, Virginia Tech students could work their way through school. Now, even Wilson, one of the most highly paid Tech undergraduates, will have a $12,000 debt when he receives his degree.
A generation ago, in 1969, the average tuition and fees at Virginia state schools were high--about $500, which was 14 percent of the average state per capita income of $3,500. In 1980, this percentage dipped to a low--9.9 percent of income--but it has been heading upward ever since. Tuition and fees of almost $4,000 annually now require 17.4 percent of the average per capita income of $22,000. Room and board add another 8 percent; factor in a computer, and the cost of going to college here is about 30 percent of the average income. For out-of-state students, the full cost of going to school at Virginia Tech is at least 50 percent of the average Virginia income. According to Virginia Tech Scholarships and Financial Aid Director Julie Sina (EDSP Ph.D.'94), her office is $32.4 million short of meeting the needs of all Virginia Tech students who qualified for aid this year. That means these students will be finding off-campus jobs (sometimes two or more jobs), taking out unsubsidized loans, and sometimes dropping out of school after fall semester. "Federal and state need-based financial aid allocations have not kept pace with the rapidly escalating cost of tuition," she says. "Out-of-state students in particular have seen significant increases in tuition [almost $5,000 since 1991]. But all students are expected to pay more of the real cost of their education as the state's share per student decreases." State legislatures, as they decrease higher education's share of funding, are forcing public colleges to increase tuition sharply. Students are borrowing from the federal government in record numbers--up almost 100 percent in the past four years. The goal of the 1960s, access to college for all who qualify, has largely been realized--about 60 percent of high-school graduates attend some sort of college. "To deny such access after it has been accepted as a given would be a self-defeating option for Virginia," said Director of the State Council of Higher Education (SCHEV) Gordon Davies in 1993. "The quality of any modern, technologically sophisticated society will depend on the quality of its citizenry and its work force. Post-high school training is a must of global competitiveness."
More need-based scholarships required
The federal loan limit of $23,000 (over four years) is often not enough. And, unfortunately, the neediest students aren't always the ones who qualify for the merit-based scholarships awarded by Virginia Tech colleges and departments. The most desperate need of the Office of Scholarships and Financial Aid, Sina says, is an unrestricted fund that they could award to the neediest students as part of the financial aid process. "The students who come here desperately looking for help a week before spring semester tear me up," she says. "I feel we, as an institution, have an additional responsibility to take care of our own." Sina is concerned about what the extracurricular work and debt loads mean for the quality of needy students' college experience. "If they do nothing but work and go to class, aren't they missing part of their college education?" she muses. "And how does their debt load affect the first job they take when they graduate? These students are under a tremendous amount of pressure." The following are examples of how several students are coping with college expenses. These are the success stories; but for each of these, at least one other student will have to drop out of school or take off a year.
"Sometimes I feel so tired"
Larry Blankenbeckler, a sophomore psychology and biology major from Coeburn, Va., works part-time in Sina's office under a federal work-study grant. Already more than $6,000 in debt, he is looking for a second job to cover his expenses during the spring semester. He receives no help from his parents. "I don't belong to any clubs. I've done some work for Habitat for Humanity, and I'm applying to be an R.A. in the residence halls, but I don't feel like I have time for much else," he says. "Whenever I'm not in class, I'm working. Then I go home at night and study. On weekends, I get caught up. I like to go to church on Sundays--it seems to make me feel better." Blankenbeckler's QCA has fallen from 3.4 to 2.8 in his first three semesters. "Work cuts into your grades," he says. "I had my sights on pre-med, but that's not realistic for me now. My biggest worries now are keeping gas in the tank and food in the fridge. Sometimes I feel so tired."
School and work play tug-of-war
Lori Ratliff, a junior finance major who's been self-supporting for five years, says when she has time to relax, she sleeps. She probably needs it. Ratliff gets up at 5 a.m. to report to her 30-hour-a-week accounting job at Federal Mogul an hour later. For the next 16 hours, she juggles work, school, and volunteer hours for the University Honors Associates and the Accounting Society. Last year, she also tutored college students and volunteered at the Women's Resource Center for abused women. "Juggling work and school is difficult--each has the attitude they are the full focus of my life," she says. Ratliff, a finalist for the $30,000 Truman Scholarship for graduate school, has managed to maintain a 3.86 QCA, but says she has little time for a social life. A Florida resident, she managed a boutique for a year to save money to attend Virginia Tech and then went to school on a combination of loans, federal Pell grants, and some Virginia Tech scholarship money. Most of her expenses, though, have been paid out of her own pocket. When the co-op program in which she'd worked for two years ended suddenly, she panicked, thinking she'd have to drop out of school. "I had no idea where the money would come from. Why, I thought, do I have to quit now when I care so deeply about what I'm studying," she says. Luckily, Federal Mogul came through with the payroll job just in time. Ratliff is looking at Columbia University, which has study centers in Eastern Europe and an international law program, to pursue her passionate interest in international human rights advocacy. In spite of her hard work, she will be $18,000 in debt when she graduates from Tech in December. Many of Ratliff's hopes are pinned on the highly competitive Truman Scholarship.
Financial independence goes unrecognized
Ratliff and Robin Smith (POLI SCI, SOC '95), last year's Virginia Tech candidate for the Truman, share an additional hurdle. Although neither receives parental help with school or living expenses, both are claimed as dependents on a parent's tax form. In the eyes of federal funding agencies, this increases their income and bars them from some types of aid. Smith, a native of Bassett, Va., is proud of the fact that she's graduating with a debt of only $11,000. "That means that I made about $25,000 myself, from scholarships, grants, and jobs," she says. Smith has maintained a 3.55 QCA and has been involved with some demanding projects, such as being chairwoman of the Ring Dance Committee. "Being involved in things keeps me going--involvment is more important than homework," she says, and lists her activities as community service chairwoman of Chi Omega, vice president of Phi Eta Sigma honorary, Golden Key, University Council, Mortar Board, University Honors Associates, 1994 Homecoming Court, and a volunteer with the Special Olympics, Christmas Store, and the Humane Society. She's also tutored "about 20" freshman. Smith spends her vacations working at least two jobs--last year she cashiered at the country club pool and did marketing for a local manufacturing company. At Tech, she worked on public relations for the admissions office and sold sportswear in a retail outlet. A former Virginia General Assembly page, she is active in Democratic politics. Her secret, she says, is that she gets by on only five hours of sleep a night.
Farm debt not financial aid factor
Tara Tuckwiller, a freshman communications major from Greenbriar County, W.Va., knew that crossing the state line to attend Virginia Tech would be expensive, especially when her farm family is considered land rich from a financial aid viewpoint. "What those formulas don't take into account," she says, "is that the land is all mortgaged to the hilt." Nevertheless, Tuckwiller, co-valedictorian of her high school class, was able to amass a hefty amount of support from National Merit, athletic, and Virginia Tech scholarships. Even so, she's borrowed $6,000 and works 10 hours a week in the Honors Program office. She's not sure what she'll do when her Virginia Tech German Club and Dean's scholarships run out in May. After one semester, Tuckwiller earned a 4.0 average while writing for the Collegiate Times, hosting the "Tech Target" campus television news show, tutoring several hours a week, and serving in University Honors Associates. She also leads cheerleading workshops for the Eastern Cheerleading Association for extra cash. "I think I developed good study skills and the ability to keep focused as head cheerleader and captain of the track team in high school," she says. "I really learned how to interact with people there. I've learned how to do the community service things I like and keep up my grades, too." Tuckwiller admits she feels guilty if she's not being productive and says she spent Christmas vacation applying for four scholarships. "What I miss most is not having time for sports," she says wistfully. "Exercise is the one thing I do, by myself, for myself, if I have time."
She chose Tech for the scholarships
Lynelle Slade, a sophomore biology major from Lynchburg, is one of those rare Virginia Tech students on full scholarship. But the ride is not without strings attached. As a scholarship volleyball player, she must adhere to a rigorous practice and work-out schedule, starting at 6:30 a.m., even in the off-season. She plays two games a week, often out of state. The other scholarship requires a B average--no problem to Slade, who keeps a 3.7 average. "I know I have to get things done in a certain time slot--that's it. I'm really organized during the season," she says. Volleyball pays of half Slade's tuition and fees; the Virginia Tech James F. Powell Scholarship covers the other half. The combination lured Slade, high school salutatorian, here, even though she'd only had eyes for UVa in high school. "UVa didn't offer me the volleyball half of the scholarship," she says, "so I came here. My dad had just been laid off, and scholarship aid was a major factor for me. Anyway, I really like it here."
Wedded debt will be $50,000
Sophomore computer science major Carmen Beavers, from Boonesboro, Md., and her engineering major fiance Zack Kershner, from the same hometown, chose Virginia Tech for its strong engineering and technical programs. They dash between classes to work study assignments and carry the maximum debt load, despite the fact they get some help from home. When they marry after graduation, they expect to have a joint debt of about $50,000. "Luckily, we'll probably have good paying jobs," Beavers says. English majors might have a harder time paying off that debt. Beavers enjoys courses like linear algebra, differential equations, vector geometry, and calculus II. She works on databases and creates flow charts for the admissions office 15 hours a week during the school year and splits her days between McDonalds and Citibank while she's on break. "I don't seem to have time for much besides studying and working," she says. "I get As and Bs, but I could do even better if I had more time. I see kids who squander their time, get Cs, and know they could get the same job I do. But I think I'll appreciate my degree more because I put so much into it."
For some students, jobs and financial worries are a focusing factor; for some, they're an undoing--too much pressure during an already stressful college adjustment. Given the current climate of government's decreasing support of higher education, students' financial problems will not be going away. In the meantime, the burden of dealing with these problems lies on the students themselves and on Virginia Tech.
Virginia Tech Magazine Volume 17, Number 3 Spring 1995