College math doesn’t add up

For Amy Blanchette, juggling jobs, school, and family is herculean task

AMY BLANCHETTE GRADUATED from community college a few years ago and applied to the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth as the next step in her long-term goal of attaining a master’s degree in public policy and ultimately running for public office. Her application was accepted, but when she sat down to do the math, the numbers just didn’t add up. Factoring in her financial aid package and projected income at several part-time jobs, she calculated that if she were to enroll, she’d owe $12,000 to $13,000 by the time she graduated a few years later with a B.A.

“That just made me really nervous,” she says. “I still can’t afford to buy a car and I’m working three jobs. I just couldn’t take that risk that I could pay off all those loans.” Blanchette decided to defer matriculating.

A lifelong Fall River resident, Blanchette is one of many students across the state struggling with the rising cost of public higher education even as the demand for graduates is increasing. Over two-thirds of online job postings require candidates to have a bachelor’s or higher-level degree. State researchers are predicting that Massachusetts will face a shortfall of 55,000 to 65,000 college graduates by 2025, just seven years away.

With tuition and fees continuing to climb at the state’s public colleges and universities, public higher education is no longer the bargain it once was, and the costs of continuing education past high school are now out of reach for many students. A recent report by the Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center found that as public funding for higher education decreased (by 14 percent since 2001), tuition and fees rose an average $5,600 at UMass campuses, $5,400 at other state universities, and $2,800 at community colleges. State funding for scholarships also decreased by 32 percent over the same period.

Not surprisingly, more students are taking out loans to pay for college and their debt loads are skyrocketing. For students graduating from a four-year public college or university, debt loads increased by 77 percent, from an average of $17,000 in 2003 to $30,000 in 2016, according to the Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center report. Now graduates of state colleges and universities owe nearly as much as private school graduates, who owe on average about $32,000.

Amy Blanchette

Complicating the rising costs of higher education are the changing needs and demographics of students. Carlos Santiago, the state’s commissioner of higher education, says there are increasing numbers of older students who need to work full-time to support themselves and their families. The number of Latino and first-generation college students is also increasing. He says community colleges, in particular, are trying to respond to the more complex needs of these students, offering a wide array of support services. For example, Santiago says that recent policy changes in remedial higher education allow students enrolled in these courses to start earning credits immediately so they don’t become discouraged and drop out.

“We have to look beyond the issue of access to college to thinking about how we can help people get through and get out. Graduation is key,” says Santiago, adding that producing more graduates is vital to the state’s economy. “Industry will go where they find a skilled and talented labor force. If they can’t find that here, they will go elsewhere.”

“Our state has so many highly educated residents and so many fine four-year institutions, it may be hard for that constituency to understand what the average community college student looks like and what they may have endured before they even got here,” says Laurie La Chapelle, an assistant vice president at North Shore Community College. Chapelle says the percentage of admitted students who chose not to attend North Shore Community College over the last few years because of financial barriers or lack of time jumped from 50 percent to about 75 percent.

“If you look at the things these students are trying to deal with while going to school, it’s pretty shocking,” says La Chapelle. “I got a graduate degree while working full-time. But I waited until my kids grew up. I didn’t have to raise children and support them and go to school all at the same time.”

Blanchette is a non-traditional student. “If you look at what all is in that category, I can check off almost every box, except that I’m not a minority,” she says. “I’m a mother, I’m low-income, I have a disability, and I’m the first person in my family to go to college.” At 34, she is also much older than students who go to college right out of high school.

College wasn’t even on the table when she graduated from high school. At that time, Blanchette’s parents were laid-off from Fall River’s declining textile mills and the family was destitute. Her father, who, like her, has muscular dystrophy, a degenerative muscle-wasting disease, was too disabled to hold another job. Blanchette worked at several different companies to support her parents and younger sisters, sleeping only a few hours a night so she could be on time for the next shift.

Despite her self reliance, and a burning desire to learn, Blanchette balked at the college application process. She wasn’t sure where to begin. Growing up in poverty and surviving a violent marriage had eroded her confidence. She had always done well in school, but college seemed out of reach and unfamiliar. She wasn’t sure if she would be successful or even get in. One of her employers nudged her on, driving her in his truck to the Bristol Community College campus and dropping her off.

“I literally walked through those doors three times before I went into the office and filled out an application,” she says. She was accepted, and had enough financial aid so she could attend without putting any money down. But her financial aid package fell far short of her living and school expenses.

Blanchette worked a total of 55 hours per week at four part-time jobs to support herself and her son while she took courses. Unable to afford child care, her son often joined her after school, taking part in a club that met in the cafeteria or hanging out in the faculty lounge while she worked or attended classes.

Despite the grueling schedule, Blanchette says she blossomed in the supportive academic community at Bristol Community College. “I’ve always been involved in my community, but it was crazy. I really jumped right in and got involved with all kinds of things.” Soon, she was president of the student senate. As student ambassador, she led campus tours and spoke at events. She founded a campus-wide group against domestic violence, winning a fellowship and a president’s award for her leadership. While she loved English literature (especially Sylvia Plath), she ultimately focused her academic interests on her passion for addressing the social, economic, and educational inequities she saw around her.

Blanchette became active in Public Higher Education Network of Massachusetts (PHENOM), a non-profit coalition of students and faculty advocating for increased state funding of public higher education. She started speaking at events on campus and around the state about what she refers to as the “3D needs” of today’s students, who wrangle with some of society’s toughest problems, such as homelessness and hunger, as they navigate their coursework.

Eventually, the long hours juggling motherhood, school work, community projects, and employment took a toll on her health. On a school-sponsored trip to Denver, she became ill. Her symptoms worsened, leaving her gasping for breath with the mildest exertion.

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She was hospitalized after doctors discovered two blood clots in her lungs. Her months-long recovery kept her from working, which threatened an already-precarious financial situation. Her adviser at school took care of her son while she was in the hospital and lent her money to pay her electric bill. Blanchette struggled to put food on the table. By the time she graduated, her honor roll status, which she had been so proud of, had dissolved. She wonders if she could have gotten a scholarship that would have enabled her to finish her education if she had not gotten sick.

The question echoes in her continued advocacy at PHENOM and at Bristol Community College’s Office of Student Life, where she now works. “There are a lot of people like me who have to work three jobs just to get by, who have to worry about where their food is going to come from, or who is going to watch their kids for an hour or two,” she say. “Maybe their scores could be higher or their homework would be done if they weren’t sitting in classrooms hungry and worried about how to keep the lights on.”