Hard Financial Lessons Learned In College

May 19, 2011
Originally published on May 19, 2011 11:24 am

Part of a series on young people and financial literacy

About 14 million Americans are unemployed and looking for work, and millions more are facing foreclosure. Some have kids in college, and those struggling families must make tough choices about whether to borrow money to pay for school.

Many college students, like those at the University of New England, are learning how to live on a strict budget. They're trying to avoid falling into too much debt.

Anxiety And Stress Rising On Campus

The campus at the University of New England in southern Maine is a postcard image. It's right on the bank of the Saco River, which empties into the Atlantic Ocean. A red navigation buoy floats in the water outside the lunchroom's windows.

Like many college campuses it might look like a country club, says John Langevin, assistant dean and school psychologist. But behind the scenes, many young people are under serious financial strain. Langevin says he and other mental health counselors on campus are seeing a higher-than-usual percentage of students in counseling services.

Langevin points to a recent survey by a national association of college counselors that shows a change in recent years. He says about 70 percent of counselors report higher student stress levels and more severe cases than they used to. With the economic downturn, he says, "we're also seeing an upturn in the level of severity."

Going to college always poses challenges for young people, Langevin says. But now there's sometimes the added stress of a parent who has lost a job, or in some cases, the family is losing its house through a foreclosure.

Tough Financial Lessons Outside The Classroom

All the financial pressures are making some students very aware of how much money they're spending at college. Sydney Keyser is majoring in nursing. Her mother has been between jobs and struggling to avoid foreclosure for most of the time she's been in school. Money is very tight, and Keyser says, "I think honestly it kind of makes you a little boring."

Keyser says friends are always asking her to go to the movies or out for lunch. She almost always has to turn them down. "I'm still watching everything I spend," she says, "so you become a planner." Keyser says she's found other friends who like to hang out without spending money. They'll go running or play video games.

But Keyser says there's a deeper difference between her and some of her fellow students whose families don't have any money problems. Keyser says she has to do the math on whether the money she's borrowing to go to school is worth it. She also has to think about how long it's going to take to pay it back. "It definitely puts the pressure on; you stress out," she says.

Keyser says each test isn't just about a grade. "It's about dollars and cents," she says. "You're thinking about what sort of career can get me what kind of income and how fast can I get started."

Katie Leary, 20, is also a nursing major. She was raised in a single-parent household. Leary says her mother lost her job just two months ago and that has raised some serious issues, since Leary has a sister in college as well. It's unclear how her family is going to keep paying for both kids. "So we have to find a way to make that happen," Leary says.

Easing The Strain On Students

Counselors at the university say sometimes students just disappear and go home when their family runs into financial problems. So the school is trying to do more to help them explore all their options before dropping out.

"We've actually added four additional staff people to our financial aid office over the past year and a half because we really saw this increase in students needing more help with it," says university President Danielle Ripich.

Ripich says the school is expanding the number of work-study and campus jobs available to students. It's also launching a special low-cost semester abroad option for students.

The university is doing something else that's kind of unexpected: offering free bicycles and Zipcar use to students who don't bring a car to school. University officials thought maybe a dozen students would take advantage of the offer. Instead, nearly 200 students signed up.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

As we know, millions of American families are struggling financially and some are facing tough choices about how to pay for college. For students, this means learning to live on a strict budget and trying not to run up too much debt. As part of our series on financial literacy, Money Counts, NPR's Chris Arnold visited a college in Maine.

CHRIS ARNOLD: Students are loading up their lunch trays at the University of New England. The campus is right on the bank of the Saco River, where it empties into the Atlantic Ocean.

We met up here with John Langevin, who's an assistant dean and school psychologist.

Mr. JOHN LANGEVIN (University of New England): It's really kind of a picture-perfect New England campus. I go to work every day at the beach...

ARNOLD: Probably just like 20 degrees.

Mr. LANGEVIN: It's only 20 degrees. And the water is so cold, but it is a beautiful spot.

ARNOLD: Langevin says like many colleges, it might look like a country club, but behind the scenes many more young people here are under a lot of financial strain. He sees that as a mental health counselor.

Mr. LANGEVIN: We're seeing a higher percentage of students in counseling services than we ever had before.

ARNOLD: Langevin says that a national association of college counselors has recently come out with a survey and it shows a change in recent years.

Mr. LANGEVIN: About 70 percent report that the stress levels are higher and the severity of cases that they're seeing is higher than ever before.

ARNOLD: Langevin says going to college always poses challenges for young people, but now there's sometimes the added stress of a parent back home who's lost a job or the family's house has been foreclosed on, and that makes students very aware of how much money they're spending at college.

Ms. SYDNEY KEYSER: I think honestly it kind of makes it a little boring.

ARNOLD: Sydney Keyser is a student who's majoring in nursing. Her mother's been between jobs and struggling to avoid foreclosure for most of the time that she's been in school. So needless to say, money is very tight.

Ms. KEYSER: You know, friends saying, hey, you want to go to the movies after class? You know, you want to go out to lunch today? I mean, you know, I'm still watching, you know, everything I spend, so you become a planner.

ARNOLD: But Keyser says there's a deeper difference between her and some of her fellow students whose families don't have any money problems. She says she has to actually do the math on whether she thinks the money she's borrowing to go to school is really worth it and how long it's going to take her to pay it back.

Ms. KEYSER: It definitely puts the pressure on. You know, you stress out. It's not - each test isn't just about a grade, it's about dollars and sense. You know, you pass and, you know, maybe you get a shot at life. You know, it's very intense. No wild and crazy college days. It's - you're thinking about, OK, what career can get me what kind of income and how fast can I get started?

ARNOLD: And Keyser has more classmates than you might think who are in pretty much the same boat. Katie Leary is 20 years old and is also a nursing major.

Ms. KATIE LEARY: So I was raised in a single-parent household and my mom actually just two months ago, three months ago, lost her job - she was laid off. And so obviously that raises some issues with schooling. Both my sister and I were in college, so there's two of us in college. So we have to find a way to make that happen.

ARNOLD: Counselors here say sometimes students just disappear and go home when their family runs into financial problems, so the university is trying to do more to help them explore all of their options before they end up dropping out.

Danielle Ripich is the president of the University of New England.

Ms. DANIELLE RIPICH (President, University of New England): We've actually added four additional staff people to our financial aid office over the past year and a half because we really saw this increase in students needing more help with it.

ARNOLD: Ripich says the school is also expanding the number of work-study and campus jobs available to students. And the university is doing something else that's kind of unexpected: It's offering free bicycles and Zipcar use to students who don't bring a car to school, and that saves them money.

Chris Arnold, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.