BOONE, N.C. — If Steve Boedefeld graduates from Appalachian State University without any student loan debt, it will be because of the money he earned fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan and the money he now saves by eating what he grows or kills.
Zack Tolmie managed to escape New York University with no debt — and a degree — by landing a job at Bubby’s, the brunch institution in TriBeCa, where he made $1,000 a week. And he had entered NYU with sophomore standing, thanks to Advanced Placement credits. All that hard work also yielded a $25,000 annual merit scholarship.
The two are part of a rare species on college campuses these days, as the nation’s collective student loan balance hits $1 trillion and continues to rise. While many students are trying to defray some of the costs, few can actually work their way through college in a normal amount of time without debt and little or no need-based financial aidunless they have an unusual combination of bravery, luck and discipline.
“I literally never went out," Tolmie says. “There just was not time to do that."
Plenty of influential people assume that teenagers can ask parents for loans if all else fails, as Mitt Romney suggested during the 2012 presidential campaign. Others recall working their way through college themselves, including Rep. Virginia Foxx, R-N.C., who heads a House subcommittee on higher education and workforce training. “I spent seven years getting my undergraduate degree and didn’t borrow a dime of money," she once said at a subcommittee meeting, adding that she was bewildered, given her own experience, by tales of woe she had heard from people with $80,000 in debt.
But students nowadays who try to work their way through college without parental support or loans face a financial challenge of a different order than the one that Foxx, 69, confronted as a University of North Carolina undergraduate more than 40 years ago. Today, a bachelor’s degree from Appalachian State, the largest university in her district, can easily cost $80,000 for a state resident, including tuition, room, board and other costs. Back in her day, the total was about $550 a year. Even with inflation, that would translate to just over $4,000 for each year it takes to earn a degree.
And the paychecks that Tolmie managed in the big city are only a dream in towns like Boone, where employers have their pick of thousands of Appalachian State undergraduates. Even the most industrious, like Kelsey Manuel, a junior who drives 10 miles each way to a job in a resort where she earns $10 to $11 an hour, often cannot work enough to finish college debt-free.
No one tracks how many students are trying to work their way through without parental assistance or debt, but plenty work long hours while also attending classes full time. As of 2010, some 17 percent of full-time undergraduates of traditional age worked 20 to 34 hours a week, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. About 6 percent worked 35 hours or more.
Students who work fewer than 30 hours a week (excluding federal work-study jobs) while in college were 1.4 times more likely to graduate within six years than students who spent more than 30 hours a week in a job, according to an article by Pilar Mendoza, an assistant professor of higher education administration at the University of Florida, in The Journal of Student Financial Aid last year. Their grades are likely to be better, too, since they have more time to study.
But working less has financial consequences. “You have two choices," Mendoza says of students whose families could not or would not contribute to their college costs. “You either work, or you acquire debt."
Banking on brunch
Zack Tolmie chose to work. He first caught sight of New York University on television when he was a freshman in high school in Altamont, N.Y., outside Albany. While his parents wanted him to attend college, their savings suffered in the 2001 recession.
So Tolmie got a job at a Johnny Rockets restaurant. By the time he started college in 2007, he had saved $8,000, four times as much as his parents had accumulated for him.
Impressed by the pluck he had demonstrated in passing so many Advanced Placement tests, NYU guaranteed Tolmie $25,000 in merit scholarships each year, which left him with about $75,000 that he needed to earn over three years. “I had a chart on my desk so that every time I sat down I would need to look at it," he says. “Every two weeks I needed X amount. That first year, it would have been around $600 after taxes."
He got his lucky break when a server from Bubby’s spotted him working elsewhere and said he would probably be happier working with her. He let her boss know how eager he was. “I made it clear I wanted to work as much as possible," he says. Waiters could earn $300 each on the weekend brunch shift, with its rapid turnover of tables and parade of mimosas.
Tolmie picked a double major in math and economics, in part because he knew he could finish in three years. Inevitably, there were trade-offs, including his B-plus average. “I could have probably done better if I had devoted an extra 10 hours each week," he says. “But that wasn’t really an option." He also didn’t have much of a social life.
Tolmie received his degree in 2010 and works as a mortgage broker. He looks at people around him and is glad he didn’t take another approach to paying for college.
“There is someone I worked with at the restaurant who went to school for music," he says. “But music doesn’t pay well. And with the hours as a waiter, he can’t do what he wants to do as a musician. He’s working, enslaved to the student loan debt, all for a career he’s not able to pursue."
Appalachian State costs less than half what NYU does, but there are not many jobs in Boone, N.C., where a teen can make $300 in a couple of hours.
Steve Boedefeld’s solution was to earn much of the money he needed before he got there. A native of Ridgedale, Mo., he was a straight-A student in high school and an avid reader of military history, particularly Vietnam chronicles. “I remember reading all of those books," he says. “And I didn’t want my grandson to look back and ask me why I didn’t go when my country was at war." The financial benefits to enlisting with the elite Army Rangers were attractive, too.
Boedefeld enlisted in 2006 and finished his service in 2010. As a soldier in a war zone away from his wife, Jennifer, he earned as much as $5,000 a month, much of it tax-free thanks to longstanding rules governing combat pay. They put away $10,000 to $15,000 annually. “One of my friends calls me an economy killer," he said.
The Boedefelds arrived in Boone with enough money for a down payment on a fixer-upper. They moved there because Appalachian State offered a degree in renewable energy that interested Boedefeld, now 25. He joined the North Carolina National Guard to get in-state tuition rates, and his service enables him to buy reasonably priced health insurance for his wife and two sons.
With his National Guard service, his $2,000 a month or so in GI Bill benefits and the $10 an hour he makes working 15 to 20 hours a week for an electrician, the family is debt-free, save for their mortgage. They have found a number of low-cost ways to stretch the budget they keep posted on the refrigerator.
“We definitely live on what we can grow in the garden and what I can hunt for," he says, over a dinner of homemade venison enchiladas topped with salsa made of vegetables from the garden outside. “I try to plan so that we make at least two deer meals a week."
Investing in oneself
When Kelsey Manuel, 21, transferred from a community college near her home in Lexington, N.C., to Appalachian State, she worried about enrolling without a clear career goal. But she soon settled on a hospitality major, having worked as a waitress near her home. She made $16,000 in 2011.
Those earnings, however, kept her from being eligible for much federal financial aid, and she was only able to earn just over $12,000 in 2012 at a similar job at a hotel about 10 miles from campus. Her parents have not been able to help her pay for college, and she is now on pace to end up with at least $30,000 in student loan debt.
Esther Manogin, director of the office of student financial aid at Appalachian State, worries that students fail to place debt in context. “You could not buy a new SUV," she says, for the average debt level of the university’s graduates, which is likely to be around $25,000 for this year’s freshmen who borrow and finish their degrees. “I don’t encourage them to take out loans if they don’t need them. But if that’s the only way they can get an education and realize their dream, then I think it’s an excellent investment in themselves."
According to the College Board, the average debt among all bachelor’s degree recipients from public universities was $13,600 for the 2010-11 school year. The average among all those who borrowed was $23,800, and many of them were probably getting at least some financial assistance from their parents. The average full-time undergraduate at a four-year public university during the 2012-13 school year is paying a net price of $12,110 for tuition, room, board and other fees after taking grant aid and tax credits into consideration, though not everyone who wants or needs to work to pay for college will qualify.
A select few students are making it work, but for many others, even the most dedicated, the modern realities of soaring tuition and other expenses are testing the tradition of working one’s way through school.