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Rising tuition: Weigh the worth of student loans

Ed McKinney • Aug 18, 2019 at 7:15 AM

What happened to the cost of getting a bachelor’s degree after graduating from high school? We know the student loan debt has skyrocketed as 45 million borrowers owe $1.56 trillion dollars and the numbers continue to grow. Student loans are the second-highest type of loan right behind mortgages, which are ranked number one.

Are colleges and universities pricing the cost of education out of the hands of middle- and low-income students? Are educational institutions taking advantage of students who unknowingly lack financial skills? Are state governments funding levels for public education not keeping up with inflation?

We, as a community, have a vested interest in getting every high school senior into a successful move in the direction that maximizes their potential. After all, we have paid thousands of dollars in property and sales taxes devoted to education. We want to see every senior successful in their chosen occupation. We ask high school seniors, “What are you going to do with all your future.”

In order to help understand the dilemma that high school seniors and parents are facing, let us examine the cost of tuition at local colleges and universities in our region for the school year starting this month. The numbers in the table are for tuition only and do not reflect any financial help a student may receive once they apply. Even with financial help the costs are the same.

University or College 2019-2020 Tuition* 4-Year Degree
East Tennessee State University $9,491 $37,964
Milligan College $33,450 $133,800
King University $28,948 $115,948
Tusculum University $24,860 $99,440
University of Tennessee $13,264 $53,056
Vanderbilt University $50,800 $203,200






*From institution’s website

The cost for a dorm room and a meal plan, books, additional fees including course fees, technology fees, parking fees if you have an automobile, health insurance if needed, travel to the campus, a graduation fee, incidental fees and charges not included in the table above. Those costs can add thousands of dollars more in acquiring a bachelor’s degree.

The cost of Northeast State Community College tuition for 12 semester hours for the coming school year is $2,175 and for 15 semester hours is $2,280. You should double those numbers because there are two semester per year. The tuition for an associate’s degree would cost at a minimum of $9,120 assuming no increase in tuition in year two. These totals do not include tech, campus access, activity, and international ed fees. In addition, there are a host of additional fees depending upon the program of study you may be pursuing.

To take advantage of financial assistance, students need to apply early, be accepted and complete testing (ACT, SAT) requirements as soon as possible. In addition, all students should complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) form (available around Oct. 1 online for the next academic year) for those seeking needs based financial aid. The result from the FAFSA form is to determine the Expect Family Contribution and in turn help to determine financial assistance from the institution.

Here is where the problem becomes almost insurmountable. We expect a high school graduate to understand everything about student borrowing and the finance costs associated with a federal or private loan. Ask any high school senior about the definition of a variable rate or a fixed rate student loan and many may be lacking those skills. Many have never borrowed money other than a few dollars from a parent or friend. Or do we expect parents to understand loan agreements and finance costs so they can advise their children of the best scenario for getting a loan to complete their final steps in education?

If one or both of your parents have a degree in finance, they may be able to help. Otherwise, they are usually new to the student loan agreements just like their children. In addition, it will take a student 10 or more years to pay off a loan after graduation. That means postponing other major financial investments such as purchasing a home. To make wise choices you have to have knowledge of the procedures and the loan agreements that are available. In addition, you need to know how to acquire free money, i.e. scholarships and grants.

Remember you are borrowing money for an education and you may not be guaranteed a desired outcome. You may borrow money and not graduate from college. You may graduate from a college or university and not find a job in your chosen field of study. You may also find your chosen field of study requires an additional degree to be successful. That may mean more costs, a higher loan amount and a higher monthly repayment amount. High school seniors need to choose carefully what their next step will be because either way it will be expensive.

Students from low-income or single-parent families look at the numbers in the table and automatically decide they cannot afford to attend a college or university, even if they work part-time and spend all their earnings on school costs. However, some of those costs can be free if they take advantage of the Tennessee Promise program.

Under the Tennessee Promise program, the state will provide students with the last-dollar scholarship for tuition not covered by the Pell grant, the HOPE scholarship or the Tennessee Student Assistance Award. Students can use the scholarship at any of the state’s 13 community colleges or other eligible institutions offering an associate degree program. Therefore, the first two years of tuition costs at college could be free if students take advantage of the state’s offer. Along with grants and scholarships the entire cost for an associate’s degree could be free.

Many graduating seniors accept scholarships offered that amount to millions of dollars contributed to their education. It is in our best interests to see that all seniors are successful as they become adults living and serving their community. Students should learn that it is never too early to start planning for their next educational step. Students should involve parents with their plans and stay connected to a guidance counselor. Making good choices will help with future goals.

Ed McKinney of Johnson City is a retired business teacher.

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