Drowning in red ink

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Drowning in the red from The DePauw on Vimeo.

The face of debt isn't always easy to pick out in the DePauw crowd.  

A Delta Gamma sorority girl behind Dolce and Gabbana shades, clutching a Betsey Johnson handbag — sporting Michael Kors shoes, a BCBG blouse, and a snug pair of Seven jeans — is one such face. 

Beyond the brand name, junior Claire McVey is a hard-edge, Kentucky-bred farm girl who pays for college herself — but without the help of financial aid. McVey is an unusual type to pass through the system, because her parents make more than a quarter million dollars a year. They paid for their educations and encouraged McVey to do the same, believing hard work builds strong character. As a result, she balanced five jobs simultaneously at once and made $6,000 the summer before her freshman year. 

Her college career has been a busy one: picking up shifts back home as a pool lifeguard, working as a CUTCO saleswoman, tutoring at Gobin Church, serving as a hostess at Outback Steakhouse, baby-sitting, dog-sitting, making GCB's at Marvin's, calling orders at The Den and serving up lattes at Café Roy in Greencastle and Starbucks in her hometown of Lexington, Ky.  

"I've got a good resume for cheap labor," McVey said as she walked from class to her afternoon tutoring job, where she makes $7.25 per hour.  

McVey schedules classes around work and often misses class. She attributes her reliance on anti-depressants, routine therapy sessions and multiple car accidents to physical and mental exhaustion.  She says knowing she will graduate owing $31,700 after scholarship sometimes puts a serious strain on her financially, academically, and emotionally.  

"Some people like to call me superwoman because of how I work a lot," McVey said. "But I'm not at all. I'm 20 living like I'm 30 and where I'm at, it's dark."  

Sometimes hard work and dedication don't pay off.

The pursuit of "Uncommon Success," DePauw University's creed, comes with a price. For students like sophomore Rachel Butler, who pay for school themselves, the cost is more than a sticker price — it is two jobs, mounting debt, and consistent sleep deprivation. 

A recent nation-wide study done by the Department of Education showed six out of 10 students graduating from a four-year college or university have debt from student loans. DePauw students who graduated in 2009 accumulated an average $24,000 in debt, consistent with the national average.  

Butler knew her family's combined income wouldn't provide for a single semester. She came prepared to bear the financial burden alone. She sought work at the First Christian Church nursery and as a lifeguard most mornings; $15 here, $7 an hour there, until treading water was no longer an option.  

"When I came to DePauw I told myself, ‘I can do this because I'm smart enough,'" Butler said. "I just don't have the money anymore."  

Shortly after the Feb. 4 announcement that DePauw's total cost would increase 6 percent to total $46,700 per year, Butler received a letter. She read the bold-faced font:  

"If this past due balance is not resolved by Feb. 1, a financial hold will be placed on your account. This hold will prevent you from registering for fall 2011 classes or obtaining transcripts."  

She cried.

Butler knew there was no way she could pay the $10,900.93 owed in past-due balances and options offered would not accommodate her situation. She could not pay in full — not in 10 months, not in four payments either.  

Until she finds a job, Butler says she will stay on campus for the rest of the semester and raise her GPA — a frustrating obstacle since she cannot afford the books. Butler has started to look into work and hopes to work as a substitute teacher or factory worker.  

"I don't want to admit defeat," Butler said. "I don't want to be like, ‘OK, that's it — you're poor. You're so poor that you can't afford school anymore.'"  

Compassion is what Director of Financial Aid, Craig Slaughter said he feels when he addresses difficult financial situations. He said it's often a lack of finance awareness that causes "past-due balances" owed to the university to compound each semester. He added that DePauw cannot afford to allow students to incur past-due balances any longer.  

"Historically, we have had some issues with folks just carrying balances over from year to year, to year, to year without any penalty," Slaughter said.  

Slaughter said he feels for students who struggle financially — especially now, as the U.S. Congress threatens to slash need-based programs at both the state and federal levels.  

Associate Vice President for Finance Kevin Kessinger gathered the data to help compose the new university budget.  

"Thirty-four percent of the entire budget goes toward financial aid," he said. "That influences the rest of the budget and so does the fact that we are very human-resource oriented."  

Kessinger said it is the totality of the DePauw experience that impacts the budget the most: campus programming, small faculty-to-student ratio, landscaping aesthetics as well as financial aid options — or the "tuition discounts" — that Kessinger said are considered some of the best in the nation.  

But for Butler and McVey the cost is already a reality — whether it sends them home now or follows them for years.