Setting the Example: How First-Gen Students Raise the Bar & Their Debt to Better Themselves

Setting the Example: How First-Gen Students
Raise the Bar, and their Debt, to Better Themselves

University of Arkansas first-generation students have decreased over the years, but the student loan debt has steadily increased and exceeded Arkansas’ average over the past 5 years, according to the College Scoreboard, a Department of Education database.

By Elena Ramirez
The Razorback Reporter

When individuals gain higher education, they accomplish the most effective way to raise their families’ income, according to research from the National Center for Children in Poverty. Yet higher education is expensive and intimidating, especially for first-generation students, who often have little background in navigating through the unknown world of federal loans, private loans and applications

Emily Beltran is a Rogers New Technology High School senior and prospective UofA Fay Jones School of Architecture and Design student. Photo by Emily Beltran.

“It’s harder because in a way, you’re guiding yourself,” said Emily Beltran, a Rogers New Technology senior and a first-generation student who has been accepted to the University of Arkansas. “Your parents can’t give you much advice … it’s definitely hard not being mentored by your parents.”

The complexity of paying for college is just one of the many issues first-generation students need to resolve on their own. The average debt for first-generation students at the University of Arkansas has increased by 12.3% to $14,423 in 2018, over the past five years, according to College Scorecard, a Department of Education database. Dekarius Dawson, first-generation senior music major studying voice, said he has struggled with his out-of-state tuition rate. The native of Memphis, Tennessee has attended the UofA for three years and will be graduating in December with more than $29,000 of federal student loan debt, double the amount for first generation students at the U of A.

Despite that amount of debt, Dawson notices the important precedent of his work.

“To me and my family, this is a huge accomplishment, because I’m setting an example for my brothers and others in Memphis,” he said. “Receiving a degree is the new standard I’m trying to start.” 

Dekarius Dawson is a first-generation student at the UofA. He will graduate this fall with a vocal music degree that he completed in three years. Photo by Elena Ramirez.

Dawson became a part of the UofA’s First-Generation Mentoring Program. He was paired with professor Timothy Thompson, who was also a first-generation college student in 1971.

Thompson recalled he was able to receive his undergraduate degree without acquiring student loans. “I can’t imagine being an undergraduate student these days and coming into these five sometimes six-figure loans and not having any idea if you will have a job when you get out of school,” Thompson said.

The three-year-old program, funded by the Honors College, provides students a mentor on campus. Students have to be the first in their family to attend a four-year college.

Despite the 12.3% increase in debt for first-generation students, enrollment for trends are heading in the other direction:  first-generation enrollment has declined 3% over the past four years. The decrease of first-generation students is something that Chancellor Steinmetz is focused on with the new student success center that will open in the Spring 2021, said Ramon Balderas, student development specialist. “We grew very fast over the past 10 years. We are still trying to adjust to the changes,” said Balderas. “Our resources are very spread out and the new student center will help students.” About 26% of the UofA’s student population is first-generation.

Thompson has been a leader in the First-Generation Mentoring Program. Photo by Elena Ramirez.

The UA Student Support Services is a federally funded program that helps first-generation and low-income students. The program serves 325 students a year.

One local high school is working to support first generation students for life after campus. Two counselors at Rogers New Technology High School are pursuing initiatives on their campus to ensure students have a plan for after high school. Counselor Cindy Caudle said the Rogers New Technology High School principal wants “no graduate to be left on their parents couch in June.” Brenda Walkenbach, who has had 25 years of experience in high school counseling, wants to present high school students with multiple options. “It may not include college, it may be the workforce or the military,” she said.  Caudle added that a number of students enlisted in the National Guard or fully enlisted in a branch of the military as a means to pay for college.

Every second Tuesday of the month, students and their parents meet at Rogers New Technology High School for a “Senior Wrap Session” where they are provided with guidance about post-secondary school options and resources.

High school counselors Brenda Walkenbach (left) and Cindy Caudle (right) help students prepare with the next steps after high school. Photo by Elena Ramirez.

Beltran, a Rogers New Technology student recently accepted into the UofA’s Fay Jones School of Architecture and Design, said she will be the first in her family to attend a four-year college. She is a part of the Early College Experience program, where she attends Northwest Arkansas Community College while enrolled in high school. She will graduate from community college with an associate’s degree. 

Beltran has applied to approximately three scholarships so far and is relying on family support for the amount that cannot be covered, she said. She isn’t familiar with the loan process and has been intimidated by the essay portion of scholarships.

“Writing has always been my weakest subject, but I can go to NWACC’s (Northwest Arkansas Community College) writing center and I know they can help me there,” Beltran said.

Being first-generation motivates her to accomplish school and to better herself, she said. It will bring a change for her family. 

She knows that school comes at a high expense, but said getting her prerequisites out of the way “is like a stress taken off of [her] shoulders.” 

The cost of school, she said, will not hold her back.

Postgraduate Debt Remains a Concern for African American Students

Postgraduate Debt Remains a Concern for African American Students

Even with UA scholarships designated for minority students, some African American take out federal loans to cover the cost.

African Americans have the lowest average household income in Arkansas, according to the U.S. Census. Illustration by Hanna Ellington

By Hanna Ellington
The Razorback Reporter

Dylan Williams grew up in a military family, and he is preparing to follow in his father’s footsteps by joining the U.S. Army, in part to help cover the financial burden of college.

Williams, set to graduate from the UofA in 2021, said joining the Army offers the potential benefit of cancelling the student debt he acquired in college.

“There’s a pretty hefty signing bonus, especially for the occupations that I’m looking at specifically in the Army,” Williams said. “When you reach a certain point in your military career, they have loan repayment programs that will allow you to have the government pay back your debt from school.”

Dylan Williams, 20, sitting outside on the University of Arkansas campus.
Dylan Williams, 20, plans to join the U.S. Army following graduation. Photo by Hanna Ellington

The University of Arkansas offers three scholarships specifically for students from underrepresented areas, which includes minority students. But, African-American students such as Williams still borrow more than other students, according to the U.S. Department of Education.

In Arkansas, African-American students borrow on average $14,694, nearly $3,000 more than white students’ average of $10,827, according to a 2015-16 study by the Department of Education. African-American students have the highest borrowing rate across the country with an average of 88% of students taking out loans, according to a 2015-16 Education Department study.

When taking out loans, some students don’t consider the future repercussions because of the need for money in the present, Williams said.

“I need this money now, and what am I supposed to do without it? I’m not looking at paying it back now,” Williams said.

Williams, 20, a public health major from Conway, received the Silas Hunt Scholarship, one of the three scholarships given to excellent students from underrepresented communities. “It was a pretty big help for me,” Williams said. He credits the U of A with “trying to do something about that problem by offering these scholarship opportunities for minorities, so they’re not faced with the cycle of not being able to afford college.” 

Other scholarships in this category include the Razorback Bridge and the University Enrichment scholarships. All three of these scholarships can total up to $48,000 for all four years, according to the UA scholarship website.

“This allows a broader section of the population from Arkansas to attend the university,” said Denise Burford, associate director of financial aid. “Anytime a student gets a scholarship, they’re more likely to attend. It shows interest in the student.”

For Yves Manzi, 20, a civil engineering major from Rwanda, scholarships were a defining reason for attending the UofA, he said. In addition to assistance from his parents, Manzi supports himself through being a research assistant for the Engineering Department.

“Some of the college students that come here, maybe their parents can afford to pay half of it or something like that,” Manzi said. “But, most of the black students that come here, most of their parents don’t have the money to support half of the debt that they get.”

Yvez Manzi, 20, studying in the civil engineering lounge.
Yvez Manzi, 20, studies in the Civil Engineering lounge with fellow engineering students. Photo by Hanna Ellington

The average household income for black families was $38,731 in 2017, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. White families earned $14,000 more in 2017, with an average income of $52,768.

Minority students make up 20.5% of students at the UofA, with black students making up 4.4% of the student body, according to the Office of Institutional Research and Assessment. Only three scholarships are offered specifically to them. 

The UofA is working to assist students by educating them about loans, Burford said. One of the ways is financial counseling through the Office of Financial Aid.

“We try to give options other than borrowing and explain the long term implications of borrowing,” Burford said.

Educating students on their college financing options could help students be more prepared, Williams said.

“I was lucky enough to have a college prep class in high school, and one of the assignments we had was to pick three colleges that we were planning on going to and then figure out the cost of attendance for a school year. I knew how much it would cost coming up here before freshman year,” Williams said. “In terms of finding out how the loans work, that was on me to figure out.”

In addition to his class, Williams’ father also taught him about loans. Williams is also receiving benefits, like an additional scholarship, from his father’s former employment in the military.

While Williams is certain on his choice to enter the military after leaving the UofA, Manzi is worried about the job prospects following graduation. The possibility of not getting hired because of one’s race is a concern for some students, Manzi said.

“I’m not saying that all companies are like this, but sometimes it’s hard to get a job when you’re a black student,” he said.

Since 2014, Arkansas men aged 18 to 24 have had the highest rate of poverty for men, with nearly 32,000 men living in poverty in 2017, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Debt for Arkansas graduates is slowly rising each year, according to the Department of Education. Illustration by Hanna Ellington

Pell Grant Covers Only Part of School Bill for Low-Income Students

Pell Grant Covers Only Part of School Bill for Low-Income Students

With nearly 50% of all UA students needing financial aid, the UA scholarship budget is projected to increase by $5 million in the coming academic year.

By Hanna Ellington, Sophie Neubaum, and Kate Duby

Some in-state Pell Grant recipients graduate with little to no debt from the UofA, while others are not so fortunate. The average debt for UA students receiving Pell Grants is $16,000, compared to the median debt of $12,040 for students not receiving them, according to 2016-17 data from the U.S. Department of Education.

Max McKeown, a senior from Monticello majoring in horticultural science, receives the maximum Pell Grant amount of $6,195, which covers 75% of his tuition, he said. With the grant, McKeown will graduate with low to zero debt.

“The Pell Grant has helped a lot, because I get the full amount of it, so that takes away a big chunk of my tuition,” McKeown said.

UA senior Max McKeown, pictured on-campus. Photo by Kate Duby

Pell Grants are federal grants that students typically do not have to repay, according to the Department of Education. They are awarded to students who demonstrate great financial need. Nearly 20% of undergraduate UA students received Pell Grants in 2017-18, according to College Navigator data.

McKeown, 20, lives off campus, making tuition his only major expense under the grant, he said.

Being a Pell Grant recipient directly influenced McKeown’s decision to attend the UofA, and he thinks attending the flagship university has given him a higher quality education than he would receive at another Arkansas institution, he said.

However, the median debt for UA students receiving Pell Grants is higher than that of students not receiving them, putting into question the measurable impact of the grant.

The maximum grant amount awarded is $6,195 for the 2019-2020 award year, according to the Pell Grant website. Tuition for in-state UA students for 2019-20 is $7,568, according to the UofA’s cost of attendance, with tuition, housing and other fees totaling $26,144.

“[The maximum grant] is a national number, and it’s not enough for a student to come to college,” said Phillip Blevins, director of financial aid.

In addition to Pell Grants, students can take out federal loans, participate in work-study, be awarded a Federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grant or be entered in the Arkansas Academic Challenge to help pay for college, Blevins said.

Director of Financial Aid Phillip Blevins
Director of Financial Aid Phillip Blevins, pictured in his office in Silas H. Hunt Hall. Photo by Hanna Ellington

The nearly $4,000 discrepancy between the accumulated debts of Pell recipients and non-recipients is not surprising to Suzanne McCray, UA vice provost for enrollment.  Students who have Pell Grants still can have significant personal expenses, and so they will take out loans to cover transportation and other personal items, she said.

For other in-state recipients, debt is unavoidable even with a Pell Grant and the addition of scholarships and other financial aid.

UA junior and Pell Grant recipient Billy Cook expects to accumulate about $15,000 in debt for his undergraduate degree in history and political science.

Cook, 21, from Gravette, said he received other financial aid along with the Pell Grant, including the scholarship lottery, Federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grant and other smaller scholarships.

“I think the one that made the most impact was of course the Pell Grant, because it’s a fairly large sum of money in terms of a scholarship or a grant. It’s made a good difference compared to the other ones,” Cook said.

UA junior Billy Cook, pictured in the on-campus Starbucks. Photo by Sophie Neubaum

Nearly 55 percent of all undergraduate UA students are receiving grants or scholarships, according to 2017-18 College Navigator data. For the upcoming academic year, $5 million is being added to the scholarship budget for freshman and other students, Blevins said.

The UofA chancellor’s decision to put $5 million into the scholarship budget shows there is a focus on financial need of students, McCray said.

Arkansas ranks 5th in nationwide poverty, with approximately 17.2% of residents living below the poverty line in 2018, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

“We’re shooting for 85% of our budget going to in-state students. It’s normally a little more than that,” Blevins said. “The motivation was to make college more accessible for Arkansas students.”

In order to receive a Pell Grant, students must fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA. The application opens Oct. 1 for the upcoming academic year, and students should complete the FAFSA by Dec. 1, McCray said. 

UREC Activities Aid Retention, GPA

UREC Activities Aid Retention, GPA

UofA research shows recreation usage leads to a higher freshman retention rate and GPA among all students. Some students report seeing improvement in academic performance and stress relief.

UA student using the Donna Axum Fitness Center in the Health, Physical Education, and Recreation building.

UA students who took part in University Recreation programs showed increases in retention and academic success, according to a study of the 2017-2018 freshman class.

UREC freshman participants reported a 9.2 percent higher return rate for their sophomore year than students who didn’t, according to the center’s study. Resources are included as part of UA tuition. UREC participants also performed better in the classroom. Users achieved an 11 percent increase in GPA over those who didn’t use it at all.

Lindsay Smith, the assistant director of Marketing and Public Relations, thinks it is important for freshmen to know what they have available, she said. By bettering their physical health, students also learn time management skills that can help their academic life, she said.

“We know that 85 percent of freshmen used our resources at least once. The more they continue to use them, the more likely they are to come back to school next year,” Smith said.

University Recreation tracked ID card swipes to count how often students attended a program. Those who spent more time using recreation had a higher cumulative GPA.

Smith focused mainly on freshmen for recruitment to UREC programs. With new students experiencing the stress of academics, unsupervised social life and newly discovered independence, the recreation staff wants to provide a comfortable environment for freshmen, Smith said.

During the first week on campus, University Recreation played host to an open house that showed activities available for students. Half of them were freshmen.

“You’re experiencing a completely new thing,” she said of first-year students. “We want to help you learn to balance school, time, social life and being away from home for the first time.”

Smith attended every new-student orientation session over the summer to give information about University Recreation. Smith also distributed 5,000 brochures to incoming freshmen.

Freshman Reilly Nichols already has participated in University Recreation every day in this new school year.

“Recreation was a big part of why I chose to attend the University of Arkansas,” he said. “I toured the Health, Physical Education and Recreation building during orientation, and I had read about it before.”

Nichols lived an active life during high school and plans to continue to lift weights and keep healthy habits while at the U of A, he said.

He has seen an improvement in his academic performance, stress relief and anxiety control Nichols said. He plans to participate more throughout the year and will be getting more involved during his remaining time on campus.

By creating healthful habits instead of playing video games in his room, Nichols said he sees an overall self-improvement.