Pittsburgh Gets Real

Indiana University of Pennsylvania looks at cost of higher education, especially for minorities

INDIANA, Pa. — The cost of a college education is high right now, but it is especially so for minorities. Colleges and universities in our area, including the Indiana University of Pennsylvania, know it’s hard and are trying to make it easier to get and retain students.

“Cost was a major factor for me, right up there with number one on my list,” said IUP student Marcus Badzik.

A recent poll by College Ave Student Loans found more than half of those surveyed said they had no idea how they were going to pay for tuition this year. Choosing a college these days is not just about the right academic and social fit, but the right financial one.

“It’s probably the main thing you’re focusing on when thinking about which college you want,” said IUP student Ryan Paszkiewicz.

The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities looked at the net price of four-year institutions across the country. The net price comprises tuition, fees, room and board, books and supplies, minus the financial aid a student receives. The group found the net cost for a college education is up 24% since 2008.

That number could be even higher in Pennsylvania.

“Pennsylvania does not fund public higher education very well. We’re 48 out of 50 states in the country in support for public higher ed, and that means that our students pay much of the costs for their own education,” said IUP President Dr. Michael Driscoll.

The financial strain on minority families is much worse. The Center on Budget Policy Priorities found for white students, paying the net price of college took up about 25% of a family’s income. For Black and Hispanic families, that rose to 36%. In Pennsylvania, it’s 50% for Hispanics, and 54% for black families.

Worries about paying for school plays some role in feeling comfortable and staying in school.

“The national data shows, and we’re no different, that if you compare students of color with white students, students of color tend to have some other roadblock that they hit, and probably succeeded 10 percentage points or more, less successful in their first year,” Dr. Driscoll said.

Dr. Marveta Ryan-Sams has taught at IUP for 21 years. She said she’s witnessed student struggle.

“I do see many students of color who do have a little bit of a hard time finding a way to fit in and a way to make contact, and sometimes it takes an extra effort for them to get connected with organizations and connected with mentors and other people that will help them feel like they have a place here,” said Dr. Ryan-Sams.

That’s the reason for a band new program at IUP called the Crimson Scholar Circle. It started in 2021 and partners new Black and brown students with mentors.

“I think this new program is an excellent effort to help students, particularly from underrepresented backgrounds to become more connected with the university and to gain that support,” said Ryan-Sams.

Those enrolled in the program came to IUP a week early for some team building and academic mentorship. They’ll continue meeting and checking in with their mentors throughout the school year. The program helps with costs as well.   Each student, including the mentor, gets a $1000 scholarship, funded by an anonymous donor.

“I’m already seeing the excitement from these students and they have some mentors who are more senior students here who are connecting with them and they’re excited about the program,” said Driscoll.

The school has taken other steps to help students with the financial burden. They’re partnered with Westmoreland County Community College and have expanded duel enrollment at a discount. IUP is also hoping to create a partnership with the Indiana School District.

Dr. Driscoll said it’s all in an effort to make a college education affordable for all, because in the end, he said the rewards are priceless.

“These young people are the future of our world and our country and our state, and the education they receive here allows them to go forward and be successful in achieving their own dreams. But more importantly, in achieving those dreams, they’re going to transform the world, they’re going to solve the problems we face, they’re going to be the leaders of the future, and our job is to provide them with the experiences here that prepare them to do that,” said Dr. Driscoll. “And if the dollars and cents get in the way of them having access to that experience, then we need to do everything we can to reduce the cost and to get extra funds to them to make sure that they can have that experience, and go out and change the world.”