At Missouri's Flagship Campus, Students Struggle To Get By
On any given weekday, University of Missouri student Jack Hale is working six to eight hours and dashing to class in between.
“I wake up a little after five and I do not stop until 11 p.m. most days,” Hale says. Between a full load of classes and two jobs taking up nearly 40 hours a week, he barely gets enough sleep.
“My body is just so accustomed to getting like, five or six hours, sometimes less, that when I sleep a normal amount, it does not do me any good,” he says.
Hale is among the estimated 36 percent of undergrads in the United States who work more than 30 hours a week while going to class, according to a 2016 study from the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce.
With Missouri consistently ranking in the bottom third for state spending on higher education, University of Missouri tuition can now reach more than $10,000 a year for in-state students, more than double the cost 20 years ago.
The state of Missouri’s funding for higher education has remained static over the past 20 years, meaning investment per student has dropped by more than 20 percent since 2001. To make up revenue, state universities rapidly raised tuition in the early 2000s, until the legislature capped tuition hikes in 2007.
Then, enrollment increased from 27,000 students to 35,000 students in the 2010s.
Combined with recent cuts to faculty through hiring freezes, MU students are facing larger class sizes and, possibly, fewer opportunities.
“Generally, it'll lower the number of direct interactions between faculty and students,” says Bradley Curs, a professor of higher education policy at MU. “That's fewer opportunities for students to engage on research projects, or other projects that are going on on campus, because there's just more students per faculty member.”
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Curs says there’s an achievement gap for working students. He says there are “two classes of students: those that have the money and engage and can live close to campus, and those that don't have the money. They're having to work off campus, but they also have to live further from campus, and just have less time to get everything done.”
Hale falls into the latter camp. While students in Greek life are partying in west campus, Hale is waking up at 4 a.m. to get to his job with FedEx.
During the day he spends hours at his on-campus job, mailing out orders from The Mizzou Store. At times, he walks briskly through the pristine shopping floor, grabbing Truman the Tiger merch to ship to fans across the state and country. His workspace is tucked in a corner of the public-facing shop behind a beige door.
“It's not exactly the biggest office, nor is it the most furnished,” he says. “And it also kind of looks like an unfinished basement.”
The door to the bare concrete room squeals whenever it opens, and the ceiling is criss-crossed with air vents that provide heating and cooling to the sales floor, though none of those amenities reach that barren space. Hale moves swiftly between that overwhelmingly beige office and the peppy sales floor, grabbing articles of clothing, printing shipping labels and packing sweatshirts into bags for mailing.
“I'm going to be studying for a midterm here soon. I'll just stay here and do it,” he says, tapping away on a keyboard to check for more orders.
Hale is a junior majoring in Spanish and Mass Media Communications. His good grades mean his tuition is fully covered by academic scholarships. Still, he barely has time to meet with professors because of work.
“I didn't have a casual relationship with a professor, where I knew if I needed a letter of recommendation I could probably ask them; if I needed their advice on something I could probably ask them; I didn't have that until this year,” he says.
Curs says that’s pretty common: “Broadly, the research would say that students are less engaged on campus, and they're interacting with the professors and faculty less because they have more obligations to work off campus.”
MU Spanish major Rachel Slings works 25 hours a week at the campus Student Success Center, tutoring students in skills like managing their schedules and seeking help. But she says she often feels she's unable to take her own advice on things like going to visit a counselor.
But Slings says she's lucky, as a recipient of MU's new Missouri Land Grant program that helps cover tuition for Missouri students based on their eligibility for needs-based federal Pell grants. The program covers Slings' tuition.
"I'm very, very lucky in a lot of ways," says Slings, "because otherwise I would be absolutely drowning in debt/probably would not be able to attend college at all."
In the long-term, though, college is worth the expense and the struggle, says Curs. At the University of Missouri, the return on investment is pretty fast. MU graduates have an average starting salary of $40,000, much higher than the $30,000 salary of those starting work without a degree. The cost of a four-year degree at MU is about $150,000, but the degree is worth more than $350,0000 over the course of a 20 year career.
“It sort of opens so many doors," Curs says, "that the returns to college, even across degrees is so important for social mobility."
Kelly Kenoyer is a graduate student at the University of Missouri.