In its year-long investigation of middle class, The Akron Beacon Journal Sunday reported on the difficulty many are having in affording college -- even at the state universities. The paper profiled Cory Schler and Jennifer Samardak, both are very concerned about the cost of an education that was once considered the birthright of working class Ohio families. ideastream's Kymberli Hagelberg reports.
Sitting at a computer in the food court at the University of Akron, senior Cory Schler is in possession of a rare commodity - at least for him - a little free time.
The 22-year-old juggles a 40-hour a week work schedule made up of several part time jobs -- and full-time course load.
Schler: "I tell people all the time, college, it's a grind. You wake up, you go to class and you pay attention as much as you can. It's what you do to get by, my good friends, they all work."
In May, Schler's grind is over - he'll have earned his degree in communications, with hopes of becoming a full-time sportswriter.
Schler: "That's when the real fun begins."
Fun is an optimistic way to put it, but Schler is an optimistic guy from a comfortable suburban home where college was always a given. However, getting there has become significantly more difficult in the last 20 years. Tuition at the University of Akron has tripled since 1988.
Schler makes about $14,000 a year, which goes for personal expenses. He relies on student loans for to pay his tuition, which has averaged more than $17,000a year. It's a weighty financial obligation.
Schler: "Well I've tried not to think about it, but my guess is that it's somewhere upwards of $40,000 dollars."
Schler's parents have agreed to pay half. They've made the same deal with their other son, who also graduates this spring.
"Bite: Dad said if you're going to college, you're going to pay for some of it. Even if that wasn't the case, I wouldn't have let him pay for the whole thing."
The Schlers expect to be free of the college debt in 10 years -- with everyone in the family working to pay the loans.
Paying off college loans in a decade is a brief obligation for many students.
Jennifer Samardak has a much different plan.
The 33-year-old Cuyahoga Falls woman has 57-thousand dollars in college debt. She also has a new house, a relatively new husband, three cats, a huge, friendly fur-ball of a German shepard and dreams of future children.
And she knows exactly how long the debt will be with her family.
Samardak: " 'til I'm about 60."
Samardak finished her Master's degree in social work in 2004. She has a good job working for the Summit County Juvenile Court, but she still delivers pizzas some weekends.
The pizza job pays her peace of mind - like the spreadsheets on which she chronicles every expense.
Samardak: "If I didn't know where every penny was, I was gonna bounce a check, which is then $36 and if you don't come up with that money, it's another $36 dollars, I wasn't about to go down that road."
Finances have been tight for most of Samardak's life. The summer after her parents divorced, she briefly lived in a public campground with her mother and sisters.
Samardak: "I just kind of thought we were on vacation. We lived in a tent on a hill and did arts and crafts and went swimming."
She learned accounting at a high school summer job. Handling money was power - and the courage Samardak needed to take on what could have seemed like a crushing debt.
Samardak: The idea of really living paycheck to paycheck till the day that I die was not something I wanted to do."
Sipping tea at her kitchen table, she worries about the kids she counsels, and wonders how they will ever be able to afford their own college education.
Samardak: "I think it's going to be very difficult, which then makes the rest of life difficult. You're asking some child whose mom or dad might bring in $10,000 a year to fork over $20,000 or $30,000 dollars to go to school."
Last year, Ohio's four-year universities had the fifth highest tuition in the country.
Samardak tries not to think about what college costs will be by the time she and her husband plan to have children.
Samardak: "The basis of our society is opportunity. It's not that you're going to have the house and the two cars and the white picket fence. It's that you have the opportunity to make that happen."
She worries that the opportunities are beginning to disappear.
Kymberli Hagelberg, 90.3