Steve Rios, a 22-year-old student from Snellville, was stuck. He could either rush through college, taking as many classes as possible to save money on tuition and fees, or he could take fewer classes, working to pay for school as he went.
He chose both.
“I lived at home with parents the first two years and was taking classes at Georgia Gwinnett College to work and save money, but even now I still need loans to pay for school,” said Rios, who transferred to Kennesaw State University and is now a senior finance major.
“It just didn’t make sense anymore,” said Rios. “For me, it was better to take seven classes now and quit my job in order to save money in the long run.”
Rios is among many college students who are struggling to find ways to finance their education at Georgia’s public universities. A Georgia Senate study committee is looking into the high costs of schools in the University System of Georgia, particularly their ongoing fees introduced after the 2008 recession that were supposed to be a temporary measure.
“Every parent sees that long list of fees … and that list does not make them happy,” said committee member State Sen. Sally Harrell, a Democrat from Atlanta. She added that the fees are not covered by the merit-based HOPE scholarship available to eligible Georgia residents.
At Kennesaw State, tuition and fees do not increase if a student takes more than 15 credit hours, pushing some to pile on extra classes to save money. Tuition alone for 15 credit hours is $2,781, with $993 in fees. However, a counselor is required to review the decision before a student is allowed to take more than 17 credit hours.
Harrell and Republican State Sen. Jeff Mullis from Chickamauga created the study committee in March with a goal of determining more affordable solutions, particularly for part-time students and graduate students, as well as making recommendations regarding potential changes to the tuition and associated fees structure. So far, the committee has not made any recommendations.
Teresa MacCartney, acting executive chancellor for the University System of Georgia, said she is also a parent and understands the concerns. She said she wanted to “make these [meetings] more of a dialogue and a conversation.”
As a result of a recession that began in 2008, Georgia’s Board of Regents in 2009 created the institutional fee in order to temporarily offset a $1.8 billion dollar cut from the state’s budget. The board meets annually to review the institutional fee and other smaller fees but has allowed them to continue. Depending on the school, the special institutional fee can range from $100 to $450.
“Pre-recession, the state formula was 75% (of funding) came from the state of Georgia, 25% came from what you would consider ‘other’ fund sources — your tuition and fee sources,” MacCartney told the committee.
She said that the funding breakdown today is closer to 50/50.
MacCartney reported that fees help cover a university’s health care plan; maintenance and operations; research; as well as capital improvements like new buildings.
The committee has until December to make its recommendations. Until then, Rios, the Kennesaw State student, will be planning his financial future after he graduates in May.
“Since I graduate this spring, I’ll probably go straight into working,” said Rios, who has about $10,000 in loans. “I’m scared that if I let the loans pile up it will be impossible to pay off.”
Kennesaw State University’s special institutional fee is on the higher end at $300 per semester, but it is just the largest of 12 fees totaling $993 that on-campus students pay.
Kennesaw State has kept the institutional fee in place throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, when many students continued their education online. Students currently taking only online courses pay the $300 fee in addition to a $55 fee for technology.
Compared to the 16 other Southern states, Georgia is currently ranked 3rd in affordability as of 2020, according to the University System. Georgia was ranked 9th in 2017, according to the Southern Regional Education Board.