North Texas Daily

Students struggle with rising tuition and minimum wage

Students struggle with rising tuition and minimum wage

Students struggle with rising tuition and minimum wage
April 24
01:27 2014

Fey Sandoval // Contributing Writer

Lodged between tastefully preserved mansions in Denton’s Oak-Hickory Historic District with its finely manicured lawns and wraparound porches is a small blue wooden house with a worn red door and a patchy yard.

Four columns hold up the cramped quarters inhabited by six college students who make use of nearly every inch of its 1,450 square feet.  It has one real bedroom and a converted attic, adding two rooms and a narrow bathroom to the building.

In the smallest room lives UNT student and aspiring fashion designer Caitlin Antkowski whose twin bed and dresser are tightly wedged against one wall. She shares the space with a roommate.  Their tiny desk, placed in the center of the room, is piled high with books and papers, which sometimes get lost in the shuffle.

As of fall 2013, total enrollment at UNT was 36,221, with 8,063 students living in the city of Denton and 3,948 living in Denton County. Many are just like Caitlin, forced to live at or below the poverty level to pursue an education.

A new generation of college graduates are beginning adult lives with record levels of student debt, according to a Pew Research Center survey released in March.

“Two-thirds of recent bachelor’s degree recipients have outstanding student loans, with an average debt of about $27,000,” said the survey.

Two decades ago, only half of recent graduates had college debt, and the average was $15,000. Student debt from college loans alone totals more than $1 trillion, according the Consumer Finance Protection Bureau.

In a county where about one in five residents live below poverty level, Denton becomes a humble home for many students whose desire for an education and career have pushed them into poverty.

They go to school and go to work, often spending more time as employees than students. They stretch every dollar and every hour. They come from different backgrounds and different towns, each struggling in different ways. But they share one thing in common: high hopes for a bright future.

This is the story of three of them.

The fashion student

As the pack of pizza-hungry students burst through the doors of Crooked Crust at midday, Caitlin Antkowski walks behind her group of friends, who rush through the door to satisfy their craving.

She pulls back her bleached-blonde hair to whisper into the ear of a friend, and asks that they order her a glass of water.  Caitlin walks back to the front of the restaurant and takes a seat at a table close to a window. She looks out at strangers passing by, and as her friends bite into their pizza slices, she sips on the water. Although hungry, she can’t afford lunch today.

Caitlin works 12 hours a week at the Texas Woman’s University library making $7.25 per hour. She would work a second job if she could, but she’s taking 18 hours combined at UNT and TWU. Her dream of becoming a costume designer for movies drives her pursuit of an education.

She has taken out loans to help pay for tuition and books, but the cost of food, rent, bills and other expenses fall on her.  From time to time, family and friends loan her money. Anything helps.

But sometimes it’s difficult finding the $200 for rent while budgeting for food and textiles for class.

“I want to be grown up. I need to experience what adulthood is going to be like,” she says. “My job is allowing me to have independence, but at the same time I’m suffering.”

She sometimes accepts money from her mother, who lives in a small apartment in Grapevine. Her parents divorced her sophomore year of high school, putting a strain on the family finances. Her father, who remains in the house where she grew up, offers her little to no support, she says.

“There’s always something that comes up in my life, like I’ll get into a car wreck or I forget to turn in a book – there’s just always something,” she says. “I never have money to save. It’s always going away. If I’m lucky, I have $10 to my name at the end of the month.”

The starving artist 

Down the block from Caitlin’s rental on W. Oak Street in a modest middle-class neighborhood sits a medium-sized, three-bedroom home with fresh yellow paint, pristine white shutters and a white picket fence. The houses around it are just as clean, but they don’t attain the cachet of the Oak-Hickory Historic District.

Behind this yellow house is a single-windowed shed converted into a little studio. Crammed inside is a small kitchen, a smaller bathroom and a space heater. Luckily, it stays warm on cold winter evenings and cool enough during the dog days of summer.

A 20-year-old, would-be comic book artist, Hayden Davis, lives in this space. Davis is a hard worker by nature and dreamer by heart as he spends most of his days sketching and doodling the stories dreamed of.

A former student at the highly regarded Savannah College of Art and Design, Davis had to leave the program and return to his parents’ home in Frisco during the summer of 2012.  He was unable to afford the $33,000 yearly tuition, even with the college awarding him financial aid for running track.

He spent the next year working at a bakery in Dallas, often rising before the sun to earn minimum wage. He saved his money with plans of moving to Denton where he could market his work and attend UNT, which he felt was more affordable.

In fall of 2013, Hayden spent a few months in the art program but was forced to drop out after being crushed beneath the cost of books, art supplies and tuition. In his savings, he didn’t account for the hike in UNT’s tuition.

In March 2012, the UNT Board of Regents approved a 3.95 percent increase in tuition and board to phase in over the course of two years. For an undergraduate student taking 15 hours that meant an additional $680 per year, a spike that caused some students to return home and live with their parents or take a year off from school.

For Hayden, it means occasionally living without the most basic of needs: food.

Hayden’s stomach often grumbles, he can’t concentrate on the storyline in his sketches, or the characters won’t come to life. His fridge contains nothing but a metal white rack. His pantry is also empty—not a crumb is in sight.

He has to make do. Generous friends have helped him with food and art supplies but he decided to drop out of UNT halfway through the semester. With his savings from the tuition he no longer had to pay, he invested $500 on a broken Pedicab and $500 more prepping it to start his own business. He works Thursday through Sunday riding up and down the streets of Denton carrying people to and from bars.

“I never know how much I’m going to make. Usually it’s enough to pay my rent, but it’s not always enough to eat,” he says. “Minimum wage is too low to have a job that would waste all the time that I would spend illustrating.”

The working scholar

A few blocks from the downtown Denton Square, 20-year-old sophomore Raelynn Walker lives in a loft she can scarcely afford. She counted on her parents for help, but it never came. Now she is bound to a lease she can’t break, and a roommate she can’t disappoint.

The Emerald Eagle scholar receives free tuition and enough financial aid and scholarships to cover some of her textbooks. Even with all this help, she struggles to provide for herself and stay motivated in school.

The average adult in Denton County must earn $9.29 an hour working full-time to live above the poverty level. The minimum wage is only $7.25 an hour with most people living in poverty making only about $5.21.

This forces students like Raelynn to resort to working multiple jobs just to skim by.

Raelynn was born in the small South Texas town of Sinton, where she recalls her parents struggling to keep the electricity and water running. They made just enough money, sometimes less, but never more.

During the fall of 2012, Raelynn moved to Denton to attend UNT and her parents promised to help with living expenses so she could focus on her education. Shortly after, they realized that wasn’t financially possible and told her she needed to get a job. When one job wasn’t paying the bills, she got a second.

“I can’t tell you how many times I’ve called my sister crying, or how many panic attacks I’ve had,” she says. “No matter how hard I try, I’m barely keeping my head above water.”

This particular Monday, her morning starts at 6 a.m. She walks past W. University Drive weaving through the congested morning traffic. Without a car she has to walk in the dark for an hour to her job at Denton Christian Preschool where she watches over the children until 4 p.m.

At 5 p.m., she works the drive-thru at McDonald’s. It’s always a fight to stay awake and deal with inconsiderate customers. At 11 p.m. she goes home, not to sleep, but to finish homework.

Tuesdays are just as busy; Walker spends her day in class from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Exhausted from the day before, she struggles to concentrate and take notes. She’s on academic probation, and about to lose her scholarship. Deprived of sleep, the cycle seems endless, as one day follows the next.

“Honestly, part of me wanted to lose my scholarship because at least then it’d be over. It’s just so hard to keep going sometimes,” she says. “I didn’t have much growing up. What keeps me going is the hope that when I have my own children, they will never know pain or hunger.”

Feature photo: Davis, an aspiring cartoonist, spends his time working on a 200 page comic novel he hopes to publish within the next year. Photo by Fey Sandoval / Contributing Writer 

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