By Ali Breland
In 2015, Sabrina Martinez got into the University of Texas at Austin, the UT system’s flagship campus and its most selective. She was thrilled. Her parents, not so much. “They were just like ‘Nope. You can’t afford it. You shouldn’t go. Loans are ridiculous.’ ” They encouraged her to go to the cheaper University of Texas at El Paso, to which she could commute while living at home. “But I clicked ‘accept’ on my admission anyway,” she says, figuring that attending UT Austin’s lauded journalism school would lead to more internship opportunities and, ultimately, a job after she graduated.
Martinez’s parents are divorced. Her mother works as a teacher and receives child support from her father, who works in the oil fields of West Texas. Her family always had money for necessities, Martinez says, but with her two younger siblings to take care of, there usually wasn’t much left over for luxuries. That meant paying for college fell squarely on her shoulders.
Even with student aid, a $5,000-a-year scholarship, and some income from a part-time job on campus, Martinez has had to take on far more debt than she expected. She’s hardly alone: Average student debt has climbed from about $11,000 in 1990 to around $35,000 in 2018. The cost of tuition at public colleges roughly tripled in that time, to $10,270, but that’s far from the only expense forcing students to take on loans. In a 2015 analysis, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development found that “housing costs [are] likely a significant portion” of individual student debt. At UT Austin, the median annual rent in the neighborhoods closest to campus exceeds the annual in-state tuition—about $11,000 for the upcoming academic year—even without including other costs such as utilities and groceries.
Martinez chose to live in a dorm her freshman year at a total cost of more than $10,000, which included a meal plan. As at many public universities, UT Austin’s enrollment vastly exceeds its housing capacity, so most students opt to live off campus after their first year. The closest student neighborhood is West University—West Campus to locals—which would have been a 10-minute or so walk from most of Martinez’s classes. In 2017, the year she was apartment hunting, median gross rent, which includes the cost of utilities, in West Campus was about $1,200 per month, according to U.S. Census Bureau data, far more than she could afford. Instead, she moved to East Riverside, which is farther from campus but where the median gross rent was a comparatively reasonable $862 per month.
Picture: AWBridges at English Wikipedia [Public domain]