Queens native and 22-year-old student Alexa Wolfe, went straight to college after graduating high school, attending the Borough of Manhattan Community College for one year before withdrawing. Tuition for full-time BMCC students runs $4,000 a year and during those first two semesters Wolfe’s parents paid all of her tuition. Things changed when her parents moved to Scotland and anticipated her attending school there. “They were putting a lot of pressure on me, I had to stay here,” she says. “I originally wanted to go to the College of Staten Island or maybe Hunter College, but I just ended up going to community college.” It was at this point that Wolfe, like many other students, had to figure out exactly how she was going to pay for her education. “They weren’t going to pay for it. I was basically on my own,” she says. So Wolfe decided to take a break for two semesters.

Some Students like Wolfe are taking time off during or before college to save money to help pay for tuition fees. The issue of affordability is taking a toll on students, as shown by the 55 percent of 2010 high school graduates attending college said affording it was challenging, according to Lawlor Intelligent Marketing Solutions for Education. Almost 150 colleges charge $50,000 or more for tuition and other school-related fees in the academic year of 2012-13, noted the National Association for College Admission Counseling. Rising costs are influencing students’ decisions on what schools to attend, when they will be ready to enroll, and how many courses they will take.
With saving money as a major factor in this decision, more students are also now opting for community colleges instead of traditional four-year schools. Community colleges represent 45 percent of all undergraduate enrollments in the U.S., according to the American Association of Community Colleges. Community college enrollment has grown by 21 percent between the years 2003 and 2011, while growth at public and independent four-year institutions has either been slower or decreased in percentage. Despite having taken a break after her first year of study to work retail for $10 an hour and save up specifically to pay for school, Wolfe says that the money earned would not have sufficed to cover all her tuition at a community college.

Because of the expense, community college is often the only option for students like Wolfe and Jacqueline Herran, a 19-year-old BMCC student from the Lower East Side. Herran did not go straight to college, but decided to work retail instead. She did not qualify for financial aid and would have had to pay about $3,000 per semester, out of pocket that first semester. Now enrolled in her second semester in at BMCC, she is paying that $3,000 over time, at a rate of about $800 a month. “I think it makes it so much harder for students to focus on school because you’re focusing on paying your bills,” she says.
These education costs are hurting more than wallets. Herran mentioned the emotional toll paying for college inflicted. She went on, “It’s very frustrating because I take five classes and I’m working five days a week to do this.” Taking a break to save money is simply out of the question for Herran. Paying out of pocket is making her want to finish school as quickly as possible, “I just want to be done already.” According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the average time it took a 2008 student to earn their bachelor’s degree was 52 months, while bachelor’s degree recipients who postponed immediate postsecondary education took on an average of 80 months to finish. Herran plans on finishing up her undergraduate years by pursuing an undergrad program at Hunter College, the school she had originally planned on attending after getting accepted right out of high school but she says, “I just could not afford it.” Hunter students pay up to $5,100 per semester. Without taking out a loan, this was almost impossible.

Affordability is still an issue for some students, like Wolfe and Herran, even when they are working and going to relatively low-priced community colleges. College Board economist Sandy Baum questions what unaffordability really means in context to varying school prices and the actual value of education. In “Myth: College Is Unaffordable for All but the Rich” she says, “It is not reasonable to define an ‘affordable’ college education as one for which someone can pay out of pocket at the time of enrollment. College is an investment in the future, paying off in the form of better opportunities.”

Herran and Wolfe recognize this; both are enrolled in school full-time while working jobs part-time to make this investment. Wolfe goes to school five days a week, four classes, and she works three or two days a week, while Herran also takes four courses and works three to four days a week. Dropping out completely was never an option for either student; they made the decision to take on the financial burden with aspirations. Wolfe wants to become a nurse and Herran a communications major.

Wolfe is now living with just her mother and younger siblings and financial aid covers most of her tuition, minus about $300 she has to pay out of pocket per semester. When she graduates with her associate’s degree, she plans on completing her at a four-year school, hoping to be covered for financial aid. But if she does not qualify for aid, she says she’ll either have to take out a loan, or take even more time off, representing Baum’s observation that as higher education costs rise, “More and more people are choosing—and managing—to pay the price of a college education.”

Baum, Sandy. “Myth: College Is Unaffordable for All but the Rich.” American Council on Education. Spring 2012. http://www.acenet.edu/the-presidency/columns-and-features/Pages/Myth-College-Is-Unaffordable-for-All-but-the-Rich.aspx

Data Points. American Association of Community Colleges. October 2013. http://www.aacc.nche.edu/Publications/datapoints/Documents/Enrollment_102413.pdf
Garrett, Daniel, Andrew Gillen, and Jonathan Robe. “Net Tuition and Net Price Trends in the United States.” Center for College Affordability and Productivity. http://centerforcollegeaffordability.org/uploads/Net_Tuition_Trends_2011.pdf
“Trends for 2012: Trend One, College is Becoming Unaffordable.” Lawlor Intelligent marketing Solutions for Education. The Lawlor Group, 2013. http://www.thelawlorgroup.com/pov/more-intelligence/lawlor-trends-2012-trend-one
Chart from NY Times article “College May Become Unaffordable for Most in U.S.” by Tamar Lewin. http://www.nytimes.com/2008/12/03/education/03college.html?_r=1&