Ok­la­homa higher ed­u­ca­tion is a good deal, but still ex­pen­sive

The Oklahoman (Sunday) - - NEWS - BY RANDY KREHBIEL Tulsa World randy.krehbiel@tul­saworld.com

Al­most 20 years after fin­ish­ing col­lege, Aiesha Be­real still owes more than $100,000 on stu­dent loans.

And, with her own chil­dren ap­proach­ing col­lege age, she has some firsthand ex­pe­ri­ence to share with them.

Don’t bor­row for col­lege un­less you have to, and don’t bor­row any more than is ab­so­lutely nec­es­sary.

“I’m up to my eye­balls in debt,” said Be­real, a so­cial worker with Tulsa Pub­lic Schools.

Ok­la­homa higher ed­u­ca­tion of­fi­cials say the state’s col­leges and uni­ver­si­ties are “af­ford­able,” and rel­a­tively speak­ing they are correct. Ok­la­homa’s pub­lic col­leges and uni­ver­si­ties — and even its pri­vate in­sti­tu­tions — are rel­a­tively in­ex­pen­sive.

“Rel­a­tively” be­ing the op­er­a­tive word.

Spend­ing $20,000 a year (in state) to at­tend Ok­la­homa State University or the University of Ok­la­homa does sound bet­ter than $26,000 for the University of Kansas, $31,000 for the University of Illi­nois or $50,000 or more to at­tend a pri­vate university. Ear­lier this year the U.S. Cham­ber of Com­merce ranked Ok­la­homa’s higher ed­u­ca­tion sys­tem fifth for af­ford­abil­ity.

But for most Ok­la­homa fam­i­lies, $20,000 is still a lot of money. So is the $14,000 to at­tend a re­gional university, or $11,000 for com­mu­nity col­lege or tech­ni­cal school.

A 2016 anal­y­sis by the University of Penn­syl­va­nia ranked Ok­la­homa in the mid­dle of the pack for af­ford­abil­ity when mea­sured as cost as a share of house­hold in­come. Only Ok­la­homa’s pub­lic fouryear non­doc­toral uni­ver­si­ties, such as North­east­ern State and Rogers State, rank in the top 10.

The Penn study par­tic­u­larly notes the lack of strictly need-based state aid. Elite stu­dents — and elite ath­letes — can get lots of schol­ar­ship help. Good-to-fair stu­dents, not so much.

This, too, is some­thing Be­real knows about. Her son will be go­ing to Boise State next year on an ath­letic schol­ar­ship.

Her daugh­ter, a high school ju­nior, will be like most other Ok­la­homa high school stu­dents with col­lege as­pi­ra­tions — look­ing to save every dol­lar she can.

“Tulsa Com­mu­nity Col­lege is prob­a­bly where she’d start off,” Be­real said.

Shelby Sut­ton, who lives in Rogers County, is in her first se­mes­ter at Tulsa Com­mu­nity Col­lege. She’s com­mut­ing, she says, be­cause it’s cheaper than at­tend­ing nearby Rogers State.

Col­lege, Sut­ton said, “can get pricey re­ally fast.”

Sut­ton wants to be a vo­ca­tional agri­cul­ture teacher, which means trans­fer­ring to a fouryear university at some point. She fig­ures she’ll even­tu­ally have to bor­row money to com­plete a de­gree.

“I sup­pose it can be a lit­tle stress­ful when you think about pay­ing it back,” Sut­ton said, “but I think I can do it.”

Katie Hyso, a North­east­ern State sopho­more from Kansas, Ok­la­homa, works at the school’s alumni cen­ter and lives at home to save money, but she fig­ures she’ll still owe about $50,000 at grad­u­a­tion.

Hyso said debt is a pow­er­ful mo­ti­va­tor.

“I can­not fail col­lege,” she said. “I can’t drop out. I have to fin­ish.”

Higher ed­u­ca­tion of­fi­cials say al­most half of Ok­la­homa stu­dents leave the pub­lic ed­u­ca­tion sys­tem with no debt, and those who do have stu­dent loans tend to owe much less than grad­u­ates na­tion­ally.

Ok­la­homa’s Prom­ise, also known as the Ok­la­homa Higher Learn­ing Ac­cess Pro­gram, pro­vides fi­nan­cial aid to about 18,000 stu­dents a year who meet cer­tain need, academic and be­hav­ior stan­dards.

But pre­par­ing fi­nan­cially for col­lege takes plan­ning and a de­gree of aware­ness that many Ok­la­homans still lack. For in­stance, those plan­ning to be­gin col­lege next fall — in 2018 — must com­plete a Free Ap­pli­ca­tion for Fed­eral Stu­dent Aid, or FAFSA, by Oc­to­ber of this year to be el­i­gi­ble for fed­eral as­sis­tance as a fresh­man.

Most state, in­sti­tu­tional and pri­vate schol­ar­ships also re­quire early ap­pli­ca­tion, and stu­dents and their fam­i­lies must sign up no later than the 10th grade for Ok­la­homa’s Prom­ise.

For some peo­ple, the process and the sticker shock can be a de­ci­sive deter­rent to post-sec­ondary ed­u­ca­tion.

Be­real said a stu­dent she worked with dropped out of col­lege be­cause she and her fam­ily didn’t un­der­stand that while she had a schol­ar­ship that cov­ered tu­ition, books, fees and hous­ing, it did not cover food.

“She couldn’t get a meal plan she could af­ford,” Be­real said.

A surprise to many fam­i­lies is that tu­ition and fees at state schools are typ­i­cally about half the cost of attendance. Room, board, books and other liv­ing ex­penses ac­count for the other half, and that’s usu­ally where stu­dents can econ­o­mize the most.

In the end, cop­ing with the cost of higher ed­u­ca­tion can be mostly a mat­ter of de­ter­mi­na­tion. Trico Blue, a North­east­ern State stu­dent from Hul­bert, “al­most had a panic at­tack” when he re­al­ized the schol­ar­ship that had paid for his first four years of col­lege would no longer be avail­able.

Blue changed ma­jors a cou­ple of times and needs at least two more semesters to fin­ish.

“But I knew my ed­u­ca­tion was worth it,” said Blue, a per­former with NSU’s River City Play­ers. “Plus, I’d gone this far, I have to con­tinue.”

[PHOTO BY CORY YOUNG/TULSA WORLD]

Mor­gan McClish, of Tulsa, lis­tens dur­ing stu­dent ori­en­ta­tion Aug. 18 at Tulsa Com­mu­nity Col­lege.

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