Ravell Call, Deseret News
SALT LAKE CITY — June 6 will be Rachel Telladira's last day as a student at East High School. She'll then spend a large part of the summer bagging groceries at Harmons in City Creek, hoping to earn enough money to pay for her first full year at Salt Lake Community College.
Telladira, who plans to study film, said she chose SLCC after its film program was recommended by a friend. Cost for a year: $2,759, up 76 percent from 10 years ago.
She plans to eventually transfer to the University of Utah. Cost: $6,201, a 126 percent jump in the past 10 years.
"I'm not going to let something that small get in the way of my dreams," Telladira said of the cost.
Her attitude is upbeat at a time when tuition continues to rise, student debt has reached all-time highs and the cost of that debt has become a part of the national conversation in academic, business and political circles. But there is money to be found and Utah students looking ahead to summer have a solution to rising costs: work hard.
Tuition at Utah's colleges and universities has effectively doubled over the past 10 years, outpacing inflation and the cost of health care. The 76 percent increase at Salt Lake Community College is the smallest jump of the state's nine public colleges and universities; privately owned BYU increased 53 percent.
Utah higher education officials said Telladira and other Utah college students have a reason to be optimistic about financing their college education. Compared to the rest of the nation, where a majority of students graduate with an average $25,000 of debt, most Utah students graduate without debt and the 44 percent who borrow to pay for school owe nearly $10,000 less than their national peers, according to The Project on Student Debt.
Dave Buhler, an associate commissioner of the Utah System of Higher Education, said the cost of tuition in Utah is the key factor keeping student debt low in the state. Tuition for all of Utah's public universities is lower than the average for peer institutions — public colleges and universities selected for comparison based on similarity in size and mission — according to documents provided by the Utah System of Higher Education.
"We have to give the Legislature credit," he said, noting that while tuition continues to rise, state funding has kept increases at a minimum.
For students who pursue degrees out of state, the costs — and incentive to borrow — only increase. East High senior Jeff Dahdah said he plans to attend Colorado State University in the fall. He was able to a secure a scholarship with the school, which mostly covers the difference between in-state and out-of-state tuition.
Dahdah works at Crown Car Wash in Taylorsville and said he'll be increasing his hours over the summer to save money for school.
Like Telladira, Dahdah's education goals aren't swayed by the looming threat of high costs and possible debt. He said he would have enrolled at Colorado State with or without the scholarship but said he's glad to have the extra financial help.
"I would have tried, but it definitely makes it easier," he said. "Out-of-state tuition is pretty steep, but the scholarship helps."
Jed Spencer, director of Financial Aid at Weber State University, said the key to receiving scholarships and other financial aid is to apply early and often. With summer approaching, most institutional scholarships have already been awarded. But as incoming freshmen change or abandon their plans, scholarships are recycled and re-awarded.
"A student should always apply," he said. "If they don't apply, they're not going to receive a scholarship."
Colleges and universities typically award a limited number of multiple-year scholarships, commonly known as presidential scholarships, to incoming freshmen, Spencer said, but there are many one-year scholarships available to students through their schools and programs. Spencer said students should check with school advisers and department heads to see what is available.
"A lot of students get in trouble because they don't start thinking about college until the summer before it starts," he said.
University of Utah Financial Aid director John Curl said even those students who have planned ahead and have a handle on their finances should save "all their money that they possibly can" over the summer. Unplanned and under-anticipated expenses like textbooks and supplies can add between $400 and $500 each semester, he said.
Students who demonstrate financial need can apply for federally funded Pell Grants, but Curl said that recent budget negotiations in Washington have reduced the amount of money students receive and tightened eligibility requirements. Student loan interest rates are also set to double on July 1, barring action by federal lawmakers.
But Curl said students worried about paying for college should not be discouraged.
"I don't want students to get the idea that there's not funding out there, because there is funding out there," he said.
Many private organizations and community groups offer money to students based on any number of criteria. Curl recommended using fastweb.com, an online scholarship database, and said he's known students who have gone door to door at local businesses asking about scholarships.
"It's just a matter of asking the question," he said. "It takes some effort but $500 here and $500 there makes a big difference."
Spencer agreed, saying that opportunities exist for motivated students, even in a difficult economy.
"There's a lot of money out there that people are willing to help," Spencer said.