Gabrielle Landis is just three classes away from finishing her Associate of Arts degree at Shoreline Community College.
With her science prerequisites done, she's ready to enter a nursing program and eventually become a physician assistant. Federal financial aid has covered most of her expenses at the wooded campus north of Seattle. But she doesn't know how she'll pay for the next stage of her education.
That's because Landis already has $30,000 in loans looming over her from two years she spent at the University of Washington.
Landis couldn't balance her work and school, plus cover her living expenses anymore while facing the growing pile of debt acquired at UW. She needed financial aid, and Shoreline offered her the most.
"That's why I ended up coming here, because it's the only place I could afford," Landis said.
And now that her financial aid is running out, she's scrambling to find any scholarship or grant that could keep the principal down while she finishes her schooling. Landis will go to whichever school offers her the best deal.
"I have to figure out what I'm doing for the rest of my life in the next quarter," she said.
Landis is hardly alone. As state and federal support for colleges and universities shrinks, the burden on students grows.
Full-time, in-state tuition has grown by more than 70 percent at the University of Washington over the last five years, to more than $10,000 for three quarters.
That doesn't include books, supplies and living expenses.
The debt load students carry with them to the podium to receive their diplomas is growing as well. In 2006, graduating seniors in Washington state left universities and colleges with an average of $17,786 in loans. In 2010, they left with $22,101.
Student lobbyists point to Olympia and the economy as the cause. Support for higher education dropped right along with state revenue.
Gov. Chris Gregoire has proposed $160 million in cuts to higher education this year, but that's only if she can get new revenue.
Colleges and universities turned to students to fill in the gaps.
At the University of Washington, that meant the highest tuition hike ever this year -- a 19 percent bump to $10,346 for in-state tuition.
Mike Bogatay, executive director of the Washington Student Association, a nonprofit representing students in legislative matters, said the poor economy simultaneously stripped funding from colleges and universities while putting more pressure on them to accept and educate students.
"They're basically just asked to enroll students," Bogatay said. "When the economy gets bad, they're pressured to enroll more, but they're not given the funding to match that increase."
Bogatay said today's students are paying more money to get less education. The higher tuition fills up what was cut, and with record enrollment, universities are filling classes with more students.
Bogatay worried what this would do to the next generation of students.
"It seems to me like there's going to be a generation of indentured servants that will be produced out of this situation," he said.
A pipe dream
Mamie Lynch, a senior policy analyst for The Education Trust in Washington, D.C., said tuition and debt pile even more hurdles in front of low-income and minority students on their way into college.
Lynch said the system already favors the wealthy. Eighty percent of the wealthiest students will have a college degree by age 24, compared to only 8 percent of the poorest students.
"Some students are likely to forgo college altogether because of these high costs," Lynch said.
Darin Watkins, spokesperson for Washington State University, said it's an ongoing struggle to convince older alumni that they need to give back and support the younger students.
Alums tell him they worked over the summer to pay for their tuition and left school without any debt. But that was when education cost hundreds of dollars a year instead of thousands.
Watkins estimated a student would need to raise $20,000 over the summer to pay for tuition and living expenses at WSU.
"If you could make $20,000 over the summer, you wouldn't go to college," Watkins said.
Frank Ordway, director of government relations for the League of Education Voters in Seattle, said affordability is no longer a concern reserved for the poor alone.
"We're gravely concerned that what used to be a birthright is now becoming more of a pipe dream," Ordway said.
Riding out the recession
Nationally, the U.S. labor force shrank by 300,000 people in November. These are people who dropped out of the work force because they either retired or gave up looking for a job.
Many of them may be back in school.
Kristina Butler, a graduate student in social work at the University of Washington, considered a number of options before college and after receiving her bachelor's degree.
She considered the military once or twice. Staying in school had the advantage of letting her ride out the recession.
"It kind of helped buy some time, except I'm paying for it," Butler said.
Robyn Taylor attends Antioch University in Seattle. She said there just aren't any jobs right now. She hoped that while she was getting additional schooling, including a graduate degree after finishing up at Antioch, the powers that be would figure out the recession and the problem of student debt.
She's still worried.
"Because Antioch costs considerably more, by the end of my bachelor's, I will be at least $30,000 in debt, and that terrifies me," Taylor said.
Students who borrow throughout their undergraduate and graduate degrees can leave with six-figure debt weighing them down.
Ben Henry worked on the Graduate and Professional Student Senate at the University of Washington one year ago. Today he works for the Alliance for a Just Society, a nonprofit -- with a salary to match -- while holding more than $100,000 in debt.
"We're basically looking at double jeopardy here," Henry said. "We're taking on debt from our undergraduate and graduate funding."
The value of an education
With skyrocketing tuition and the possibility of paying off debt forever, Henry wonders if it's worth it for the younger generations to go to school, and what that means for society as a whole.
"Is it good for our society to make our education so difficult to achieve?" Henry said. "Is it fair to younger generations to pay such a high portion of the cost out of their own pocket?"
Matthew Reed, program director for the Institute for College Access & Success in Oakland, Calif., said an education is a very different kind of investment.
"Once you have your education, that's not a hard object you can sell like a house," he said. "[But] overall, college is still a good investment. ... [Graduates] still have better prospects of getting a job than those without a college education."
Unemployment for recent graduates hit a high of 9.1 percent in 2010, he said, but that still pales compared to the 20.4 percent unemployment rate faced by high school graduates.
Student advocates are fighting for a solution.
Adam Sherman, a UW graduate and student lobbyist for UW's Graduate and Professional Student Senate, is in Olympia this legislative session advocating for low tuition.
Loans in many respects are a federal issue, but he said the state could help control the initial cost of education for students.
"The more state funding that goes toward keeping tuition low, the better," Sherman said.
And in October, President Barack Obama announced the "Pay as You Earn" program. It caps a student's monthly loan payment at 10 percent of his discretionary income.
Any debt leftover after 20 years is forgiven.
That could be good news for Henry at the Alliance for a Just Society. With six figures in debt and a passion for nonprofits, Henry doesn't see an end to his student loans: "I'm pretty much resigned to the fact that I'm going to be paying these loans off until the day I die."