Willmar College Students Discuss the Burdern of College Costs

Students at Ridgewater College sometimes work two or three jobs to pay for school. Some go to school part-time to spread out the cost. Some do all of that.

Students and staff members at the college’s Willmar campus spoke this week with state Rep. Paul Thissen, DFL-Minneapolis, about the problems of paying tuition and fees, buying books and school materials, and taking care of the costs of daily life. Thissen is minority leader of the Minnesota House, and his stop at Ridgewater was one of several he’s made at campuses around the state to talk about college costs.

The 2016 legislative session opens Tuesday.

Former Reps. Mary Sawatzky, DFL-Willmar, and Andrew Falk, DFL-Murdock, also attended the meeting and talked about the way college costs have increased in recent years.

“We are making it incredibly difficult for young people to further themselves,” Falk said.

Students talked about how they pay their school costs and about programs at the school that have helped them.

Pam Baldwin, a non-traditional student, said, “I’m amazed at how costly textbooks are,” to nods from others.

According to numerous people at the gathering, textbook costs can start at $300 and go up from there. Another problem is that companies issue new editions each year, preventing students from buying or selling used books.

Some staff members talked about the family burden of their children’s college debt.

Thissen asked what they do to pay for college.

One woman said she has a work study job on campus, has loans and grants and also two other jobs. “I just don’t spend much on other things,” she said.

“Coupon-clipping and penny-pinching,” another woman said.

Many of the students in the group of about 20 people said they participated in the TRIO program, which offers practical advice, career interest assessments, tutoring and other assistance to students. The federal program can help students find scholarships and grants.

Students praised the Finish Line program sponsored by the Otto Bremer Foundation.

The program is in its second year. In the first year, it offered grants of $4,200 for students to use for school expenses and for other expenses. This year, with more students participating, the grants are about $3,200.

One man who works at the college said he had participated in TRIO as a student and gave the program the credit for his being able to finish his degree. “They stopped me from sliding back,” he said.

Robert Villarreal returned to Ridgewater this year. He had originally attended in 2001. He had to pay off his debt from his first classes before he could start again, he said.

This time, his tuition has been covered by grants, but book costs were still a problem. “I stopped buying books,” he said.

Thissen asked how he manages. “You have to be creative,” he said. Books are available in the library, and sometimes they are less expensive online. Many instructors test on class notes more than textbooks, too, he said.

Instructors gave TRIO and other programs credit for keeping some students in school. “Many might fall through the cracks without the support they get,” one said.

After the meeting, Villarreal, a pre-nursing student, said he “learned some stuff” over the years between his first and second stints in college. “A lot of the information is out there,” he said, “and teachers teach you what they feel is important to know, so that’s what they’re going to test you on.”

Thissen said after the meeting that he heard similar things at other campuses, but there was more talk of TRIO and the Bremer program at Ridgewater. TRIO is a federal program, but the Bremer program is provided at a handful of campuses in the state.

“Small things can make a difference for students,” he said. “It’s striking how hard students are working to make it.”