- The Washington Times - Friday, March 28, 2008

CLEMSON, S.C. — At the giant public university here, officials are bracing for likely state budget cuts. They hope fundraising can help make up any gap, so that students won’t feel the brunt.

At the community college and at the small Christian college just outside town, commuting students are having to work extra hours to cover the surging cost of gas.

The national economic downturn is certainly felt in college towns like this one, home to three very different institutions within a few miles of each other and situated in a region still smarting from thousands of textile job losses.

As for job prospects for new graduates, the outlook is mixed. Last fall, a survey by the National Association of Colleges and Employers predicted campus hiring would be up 16 percent for the class of 2008. An updated survey last week revises that figure downward but still predicts an increase of about 8 percent over the class of 2007.

For colleges themselves, an economic slump can be good for business, reminding people of the value of more education and pushing them to get it when other opportunities are scarce.

Colleges plan for the long haul, so many can take advantage of the effects of an economic slump, like lower construction costs and — if the current credit crunch passes — lower costs to borrow money.

In short, the economy on campus is a complicated story, best told from the point of view of some people in the midst of the forces at work.

On a break between classes, Hannah Bolt tries to get some work done in a campus coffee shop at Southern Wesleyan University, a small Christian college in the town of Central, a few minutes from Clemson.

Every minute is precious. She comes to campus four days a week, and often works the other three at a department store. Her parents have pushed her to pick a steady career, so she is studying to become a special-education teacher. Dad was a commercial fisherman and is battling health problems. Mom is a seamstress in the struggling textile industry.

“Some weeks she’ll work three days and they’ll say, ‘We don’t have anything for you to do the rest of the week, take a four-day weekend,’ ” Miss Bolt said.

There’s no such thing as a typical student, here or anywhere else. But Miss Bolt is representative in some respects. Like most students here and an estimated 57 percent nationwide, she has a job. She’s also a commuter, as are the approximately four in five American college students who don’t live on campus.

That’s why to college students, the price of gas is an education issue. It used to cost Miss Bolt $20 to fill up her Volkswagen Beetle once a week for the 26-mile trip from her home in Westminster to campus. Now it’s $37 to $40.

Given her family’s financial pinch, one might wonder what Miss Bolt is doing at a private college like Wesleyan.

But financially, the hit isn’t too hard. Wesleyan tuition and fees run about $17,000 per year, but about 90 percent of students get aid. With a state scholarship and $7,000 from Wesleyan, Miss Bolt has only had to borrow $3,000 — and that should be paid off by a state teacher training program.

Chad Peters, the admissions director, acknowledges that private colleges such as Wesleyan — with an endowment of just $3 million — can’t always compete head-to-head with state schools on price.

But Wesleyan is holding its own. It’s looking to enroll 300 freshmen next fall, the biggest increase in years.

At Clemson University, campus consumerism is running full throttle.

The Chili’s restaurant in the student union does a brisk weekday lunch business. Ridership on the campus bus is up with gas prices, but overall more students than ever have their own cars.

Marvin G. Carmichael has worked in financial aid since 1973, and now heads the office. Times have changed.

As a student here, Mr. Carmichael worked his way through school mowing lawns and tending bar. Going out to a nice dinner was something to celebrate graduation, not the end of the week.

Clemson does have its share of struggling students. Of about 12,500 undergraduates, about 1,950 receive federal Pell grants, meaning they likely come from families earning under about $40,000.

But Mr. Carmichael, and many students here, say they think most students are relatively sheltered economically. He is glad for them, but does worry about two of the reasons that may explain why.

The first is that the student spending splurge is paid with borrowed money — particularly from private lenders, as opposed to the government. Nationally, the College Board reports that nonfederal loans account for 24 percent of total student aid, surging from 6 percent just a decade ago.

Here at Clemson, the change is even more alarming. Just five years ago, about 700 students had private loans, totaling $4.2 million, Mr. Carmichael said. Last year, there were nearly 2,400 who borrowed a collective $17.5 million.

“Those figures are going to go up,” Mr. Carmichael said. “It’s scary.” Some are borrowing money out of genuine need to cover rising tuition. But many, he worries, are simply doing it to maintain their campus lifestyle.

The second reason Clemson students appear flush is that many are well off. Like a number of states, South Carolina has fundamentally shifted how it spends money on public higher education in recent years.

For the most part, it used to hand money directly to universities. Now, much of the money comes through merit-based scholarship programs, which give students who meet certain academic criteria thousands of dollars to spend on in-state schools.

The upside is such programs cut college costs for thousands of families, and raise statewide expectations that a college degree is within reach.

But the downside is that a lot of state money gets spent on students who don’t necessarily need it to attend college. For instance, many families take the savings and offer their children a car if they will stay in state.

“The state is focusing on academic excellence,” Mr. Carmichael said, which is all well and good. But “we are not particularly attractive to high-need students, unless they are high achievers, because the resources do not exist.”

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