By Michael McGuire

When Casey Riggs, a first-class cadet at Virginia Military Institute, graduates in May, he’ll carry with him a degree, his VMI class ring and about $30,000 of student debt.

Riggs is one of millions of American college students whom President Obama promised to help in a stump speech at the University of Michigan a week ago. College tuition costs are skyrocketing, Obama said. The national student loan debt has now surpassed credit card debt.

But even with his debt, Riggs considers himself lucky. Almost all of his student loans came from his first year of college. Since then, the annual cost for Riggs to attend VMI has been covered by a Navy scholarship. Riggs, who is not a resident of Virginia, pays nearly $40,000 a year, twice what state residents pay.

“If I hadn’t gotten the Navy scholarship, I wouldn’t have come back,” Riggs said.  “Coming out of college with $100,000 of student loans was just not an option for me.”

In 2010, nearly 60 percent of students graduating from public and private colleges in Virginia carried debt. The average amount was $23,000, according to a report from the Institute for College Access & Success, a nonprofit organization that seeks to make college education more affordable. Nationally, student debt has risen 24 percent since 2004.

Riggs said he took on several student loans to pay for the first year of college, knowing he couldn’t afford loans for all four years. Without a scholarship for the remaining three years, he would have dropped out of college and gone straight into the Navy to avoid the debt.

The scholarship changed everything, Riggs said. He will become a commissioned Navy officer the day before he graduates from VMI.

“Without a scholarship or someone there to help you pay for it, college is just not affordable,” he said.

The same message was at the core of Obama’s speech and a recent proposal released by the White House.

Obama’s proposal promises to give more funding to colleges and universities that keep tuition affordable and help more low-income students. It would provide an additional $7 billion for a student loan program.

Obama also asked states to kick in more money to pay for higher education.

Col. Tim Golden, VMI’s director of financial aid, commended the president for starting a national conversation about college affordability. But he said he doubts that it will do much good.

“A lot of people talk a good game about higher education,” Golden said. “But the will is not there.”

Golden, a former vice mayor of Lexington, said state legislators are more likely to focus on funding K-12 education.

“They fund what’s going to get them re-elected,” he said.

Golden said the money the state gives VMI has decreased in recent years. Ten years ago, Virginia covered close to 40 percent of the school’s operating budget. Golden estimated that state funding for VMI is now below 20 percent.

VMI now relies more on fundraising to cover its operating expenses and financial aid. But less state aid also makes the cost of tuition go up, Golden said.

VMI hasn’t passed all of the expense on to its students, he said. And the money the school allocates for financial aid is increasing.

“Our alumni and friends have been very generous, willing to support need-based and unrestricted scholarships,” Golden said. “Need-based financial aid is not really a sexy item.”

The price tag for VMI covers more than tuition, room and board.

“We do your laundry, give you haircuts,” Golden said. “The whole bit.”


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