October 20, 2012
By Kathie Bassett
EDWARDSVILLE — In a role reversal, Lt. Gov. Sheila Simon job-shadowed work-study students to learn more about how they finance their college degrees and how they balance their commitments to finish their programs.
Simon visited Southern Illinois University Edwardsville on Friday and met with students working in dining services at Morris University Center.
Her tour was part of a statewide College Affordability Summit she is holding at each of Illinois’ 12 public universities.
“We cannot lose sight of our students who must work and borrow to bridge the gap between financial aid and rising college costs,” Simon said. “To keep our state competitive in the national and global economy, we need more students to complete college than ever before.
“The only way we can achieve that goal is if college is affordable,” she said. “We must work together to rein in costs.”
One of Simon’s first stops was in the center’s main kitchen facility.
“These are really tasty-looking sandwiches,” she remarked as she stopped to ask Food Service Administrator Frank Fischer about his student debt level.
Fischer earned his undergraduate degree from the university and currently carries about $14,000 in outstanding student loans.
“Being in the Federal Work Study Program was the only way I was able to keep my debt down,” he said. “And I hope to be in a position to start a master’s program in business administration next year.”
To pay their bills, students have racked up, on average, $26,682 in student loans in 2010, Simon said.
According to a Pew Research Center report released in early October, this figure is up 14.3 percent over the previous three-year period.
Simon’s next stop was to speak with work-study students employed at the university’s self-run Mi Cocina eatery.
Junior Krystal Smith, 21, works 20 hours per week at the center and an additional 15 hours at another job.
Simon asked the student what she would have the lieutenant governor do if she could wave a magic wand.
“More financial aid,” Smith promptly responded.
Like the junior, sophomore Teaghan Smith patches together work-study and scholarships to pay for tuition and school expenses.
“I would not be in college if it weren’t for work-study and scholarships,” said Smith, the third of 10 children.
Students interviewed told Simon that the university’s policy to include textbook rental fees of approximately $100 as part of their tuition has helped them budget their expenses better.
In contrast to the university’s minimal fee, one student said he has friends who spend as much as $1,000 per year above and beyond tuition on textbooks.
Simon also spoke with faculty members and administrators to gain their perspective on what kind of support might help students succeed in completing college degrees.
“As a state, we want to increase the proportion of working-age adults with a college degree or credential to 60 percent, up from 41 percent, by 2025,” Simon said.
This contrasts with the results of a national poll showing 80 percent of adults and more than 40 percent of college leaders believe higher education is not worth the cost of admission, Simon said.
Simon said she believes that addressing affordability issues should become a top priority. One way to accomplish this, she said, would be to publish online College Choice Reports, containing information such as net costs, average debt and completion rates in an easy-to-read and easy-to-find format.
Simon also said the Monetary Award Program should be strengthened and that tax credits should be granted for tuition payments.
“Together, we could stabilize the cost for public universities and community colleges, following tuition and fee increases that have outpaced inflation, family income and available aid over the past 20 years,” she said.