Do the math: Financial aid shrinking, straight answers not forthcoming

I’m not the greatest with math, given my dyscalculia. However, I’m not stupid. The biggest hassle I’m having with my doctoral program is financial, from start to finish.

One compelling reason to return for a doctorate, despite having an MFA, was that I could double my adjunct salary AND get health insurance. In exchange, I lost access to the non-optional state teacher retirement fund (yet doing the exact same job–go figure!). Thank God a coworker clued me into asking for that disbursement once my classification changed. That chunk of change paid my bills during the application process. I would have preferred to put that money into a Roth IRA, but you do what you have to to survive.

The first year, with its extra stipend, was lovely. I thought long and hard about the student debt I have (which would be half as much had I not spent two years at a private SLAC), then decided to take out a couple of more years of loans to cover conference travel, updated computers, mission-critical software, etc. Add to this the biweekly ten-gallon fillup of $3/gallon gas and $3-5/day parking five days a week, and the *occasional* on- or near-campus meal that runs $6-8 (!!). It is entirely possible to spend $20/day just to go to school. Expenses I didn’t anticipate:

— Having to run off $20 worth of copies on the fly at Kinko’s couple of times each semester when the university copiers are either completely down or in heavy use an hour before class.

— Having to buy more memory for my computer after the first year or so, and having to upgrade said computer in full later this year in order to do the teaching projects that I do.

— An unexpected medical problem that requires monthly visits to the drugstore, visits to a pricey Buckhead specialist, and about $3200 worth of surgery (still holding my breath on whether the required student insurance will cover it.).

I quickly gave up eating out, well before I’d read about David Bach’s “latte factor.” I’m more of a ghetto latte or straight double-espresso gal, myself, but I did stop making daily coffee trips. (I absolutely refuse to give up my 2-3 times a week $1.40 small regular coffee.) Either I eat at home, bring a pack of Thai noodles or a can of soup, or don’t eat at all on campus. Atlanta is a gourmet nightmare. In New Orleans, you could (and still can) find great food at cheap prices. In Atlanta, they give you double portions of bland, undercooked, poorly-selected, and otherwise uninspired food just so they can charge twice as much per plate. I can’t always “just take it home” when I’m dragging around 50 pounds of books for 14 hours a day. And I won’t throw it out. If I can’t finish that food, I give it to one of the many homeless guys plying our urban campus.

“Eating out” recently meant $2 oatmeal, which I promptly flogged myself for because I had a week’s worth of instant oatmeal for that price at home. Student food is no longer the joke that it was in 1982 when I was a freshman at LSU (with a job, thank you). For a 43-year-old woman with a solid professional resume’, it’s not funny. Being a starving student during the Reagan Era was rough. The current scenario at this stage is a little too familiar (and scary) for my taste.

This semester, I got a nameless e-mail from someone in the financial aid office, informing me that my aid had been reduced–to the tune of 25%! Say what?! I insisted on speaking to people face-to-face in their offices, did the cog-in-the-bureaucracy scavenger hunt, and finally got to speak with a counselor in person. The way she explained it, my financial aid has not been reduced; my budget has been adjusted. Frame it however you like; the results are the same. I pressed for information about who had made this decision and on what basis, getting nowhere; finally, she averred that “the federal government” had made this decision.

“So, does that mean that this is going on all over? Or just at Georgia State?”

She couldn’t really speak for other universities, of course.

“So, uh, how many people on campus are having this problem? A lot?”

Quite a few.

“I mean, how many? Are we talking fifty? Hundreds? Thousands?” Once again, I began to hate the fact that I was on a great story but not as a reporter. My mind began to wander:

How easy would it be to say screw this, walk a few blocks down the street to CNN, and beg for my old job back? Or any job? Or maybe go to AP, where I’d planned to go in the first place? Even the AJC is just a block away…if I had stayed at CNN, never moved up, never been promoted, I would have made $500,000 in salary alone by now, much less gobs of money from all those nice Turner bennies, RIP…and I would own 1/3 of the house that I no longer own at all…

But I’m a poet. My life is different now. Whatever I do for money in a couple of years is fine. Right now, I’m putting the finishing touches on my education.

I spent the next couple of weeks running around like a McDonald’s counter worker, filling the financial aid’s various orders for this or that piece of paper proving the extent of my poverty. Let’s see… receipts for the prepaid cell I only fill 3-4 times a year… gasoline receipts for the paid-off 13-year-old Nissan Sentra I drive but don’t actually own…the $200+ of uninsured medical prescriptions I need each month… formalizing on paper the verbal rental agreement I’ve had with my folks for the use of their basement apartment since May of 2002…the rapacious $50-plus per month local phone service and the almost-nonexistent long-distance bills… just how poor is poor? Not being able to rent a simple apartment or small house sounds poor to me.

This year, my first-year fellowship ran out, which was quite a shock in August when my pay dropped from about $1200/month to $900. Suddenly, I would be making more by going back to being a part-time instructor–enough to pay for my own medical expenses, anyway. And the price of gas has gone berserk this year. I have to be on campus every single weekday; at least two nights a week for the past two years, I’ve had to pay to park in a safer garage instead of in a street-level lot because I am in class until after dark. I used to park at the state parking garage. They stopped charging Georgia’s students $3 and started making them pay $5 like the fat legislators down the street this year. I stopped parking in that garage most of the time, which probably suits the fat cats fine.

I hate not being able to take the train or bus. I despise wasting gas. Unfortunately, I don’t know anyone I trust enough to commute with around here. Where I live, public transportation is almost nonexistent, stops running before I need it, costs as much as parking, and takes an hour to accomplish what I can do in 15-45 minutes, depending on traffic. (The upside is, when I have been able to ride the bus occasionally during previous semesters, I can use that time to study or to catch up on my reading.)

I have a fairly low standard of living as it is. I own more than I’ll ever need, though to some it might seem like nothing. I don’t have a ton of gadgets, furniture, or credit card debt. I have a nice computer, an excellent library, half of a kayak, very basic dive gear, decent work clothes, a nice bed, and a serviceable desk. I pay my bills; my partner pays hers; we eat a lot of rice and spaghetti; sometimes I buy a decent bottle of wine. What more could I need? (A small house of our own would be the only thing.)

Check this out:

1. GSU’s tuition has gone up 37% over the past four years. Even so, Bush cut financial aid and frozen work-study and SEOG in his current budget. Over the weekend, though, the BBC reported that he’s increased the size of the military. I don’t recall seeing that story on the domestic networks, which were busy trying to decide whether Hillary was too weak or too strong, or whether Barack’s admission that he used cocaine and marijuana as a student would disqualify him from holding the office that Dubya, who refuses to cop to having had a little problem with the drink and the toot in his youth, now holds.

2. Since 1993, the Board of Regents has known that the majority of students on HOPE “scholarships” lose them by the 30-hour checkpoint, but (somehow) continue to enroll in college (so why continue to waste that money on students who don’t know what to do with it when grad students are left to scrounge for crumbs?). The better students take their HOPE money and run–to “more competitive” institutions. (Maybe like private SLACS and out-of-state universities?)

All this should indicate that I have indeed cut to the bone and nicked it–and am not up for financial amputation. Now that the semester is over, I decided to investigate my disappearing federal “budget.” And I kicked myself again for basing my application on what I thought were practical and financially responsible reasons when Harvard announced it would share the love with its less-well-funded students. Wonder if it’s too late to transfer?

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