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Tuesday, October 27, 2020

The Coronavirus Continues its Siege on College Affordability

A photo of Old Main in the Fall of 2019 with students walking past. The Financial Aid Office is located in Old Main but has gone remote due to the coronavirus.

Students continue to fight their way through the coronavirus pandemic with the help Western.

By Mathew Willoughby

Struggling to pay for college has become all-too-familiar for second-year Western student Kaelee Bergsman due to COVID-19. 

Bergsman, a student juggling work and school, pays for her college expenses purely through loans, financial aid and grants. This has amounted to a debt that she estimates may take her up to 30 years to pay off as a direct result of the pandemic. 

This debt has not only affected her finances, but her academic life as well. Bergsman said she has been set back a year academically.

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“It’s kind of taken a really big impact on just my entire life plan with repaying things,” Bergsman said. 

Bergsman said she regularly considers taking a year off college and instead working two full-time jobs to lessen the financial blow she has taken due to the pandemic.  

“I straight up woke up one morning and I was like, ‘I want to drop out just because I hate that I feel like I’m paying for nothing right now,’” Bergsman said. “I sat there and really contemplated not coming back just for a year. Just so I could get back on my feet and get everything a little bit back to normal.”

However, James McCafferty, Co-Director of the Center for Economic and Business Research at Western recommends students not take the year off if possible.

McCafferty says that statistics show taking a gap year this year would end up in a $90,000 loss in lifetime earnings. He says that staying in school makes a lot more sense from a financial standpoint long term but warns that it is a hard decision to make. 

Bergsman’s situation changed when Western’s Financial Aid Department contacted her saying that they may be able to help.

“The fact that they reached out to me and encouraged me to apply for things that they think would help me financially was really helpful,” Bergsman said. Bergsman acknowledged the fact that not everyone is having the same experience that she is, but she is grateful for the financial aid she’s received from the Federal CARES grant.

Bergsman estimates that she has received about $3,500 from Western, made up of grants such as the Federal CARES grant. Bergsman is just one of the 3,273 students that have been assisted by the Financial Aid Department.

The Financial Aid Department has received an estimated $5.8 million from the Federal CARES grant, and approximately 80% of that has been used to help those students. The rest is planned to be used this quarter to assist other students in need, said Clara Capron, Assistant Vice President and Director of Financial Aid.

“We anticipate that the funding will all be awarded this quarter,” Capron said, expecting a large influx of applications for the Federal CARES grant.

Capron expects a large influx of applications for the Federal CARES grant. 

Capron anticipates that the majority of the Federal CARES grant funding will be awarded this quarter. 

Even with the pandemic causing many college students to suffer economically, Washington ranks 49 out of 50 in the completion of the FAFSA, McCafferty said.

“We literally are at the bottom of the list for states that apply for financial aid,” McCafferty said. “You really need to make sure you’ve checked all the resources that are out there.”

Many students who are not struggling with affordability are still qualified to receive some type of aid, Capron said.

“I would say the overwhelming majority of students who seek aid get something, or they are offered something,” Capron said.

Bergsman still struggles to balance a full-time job while in school even with this help, to the point where she has deliberately chosen classes that would be acceptable to fail this quarter.

“My classes are a fail safe,” Bergsman said. “I cannot attend the way that I want to, and the way that without [COVID-19] I would be able to.”

Even as her college debt grows, Bergsman still wants to pursue her double major in English literature and business administration, and that learning is what drives her.

“I want to walk away with a degree,” Bergsman said. “It’s something that I’m passionate about. It’s something that I care about and I’ve really enjoyed my whole life. So, it’s something that I want to continue to do.”

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