You become aware at Cornell College that school leaders take pride in the Mount Vernon, Iowa, college’s small class sizes and bonds students, professors and staff members make.

But the college’s modest enrollment of about 1,000 also means a smaller pool of tuition-paying students supporting facilities that attract people to the school. Tuition increases become a natural part of the college.

Parents can help their children prepare for college costs by saving for them, Pamela Perry, the college’s director of financial planning and assistance, said.

“I think a lot of families aren’t really thinking that far down the road yet,” she said. “They’re just getting through their month-to-month, paying their bills as they go. Thinking ahead is not always easy.”

Tuition at Cornell will be $43,550 in the 2019-20 school year but room and board and other fees will bring that total to $53,736, Cornell states on its website.

Matt Stoll, a Cornell junior in the 2018-19 school year and majoring in biology, said he expects to be debt free when he graduates because of scholarships from both Cornell College and his former high school. Stoll said his parents helped him get to this point.

Matt Stoll, Cornell College

“They stressed while I was high school how important grades and things like that were, and I have to give them a lot of credit for that because they were right. I was able to get a great scholarship from both my college and my high school.”

Brady Tobin, a 2019 graduate with majors in math and education, said parents are helping him, too, managing student loans. He said he is graduating with close to $100,000 worth of debt that he will work to pay off once he graduates.  

Tobin said he could have shaved $5,000 to $10,000 off that debt if he would have looked harder for scholarships while in college. “I was really diligent about looking for scholarships as a senior in high school. So, I came in the first year with just a couple thousand dollars worth of scholarships. But I didn’t continue looking for outside scholarships from my college career,” he said.


“It’s just becoming almost ridiculous to where these levels of debt required to be paid off are not actually feasible for someone with an average paying job to at least pay off before they are 40 or 50,” Tobin said.

Maya Peske, Cornell College Credit: Matthew McDermott/IowaWatch

“I’ve known other people that have chosen not to go to college willingly in order to avoid that debt and going to trade practices such as cooking. They’re not making as much at the end per year as someone who has had the higher education, but they don’t have that debt-to-asset them back in the beginning, and then they can begin saving right away.”

Maya Peske, a junior this past school year and a political science major, said her debt will range from $20,000 to $22,000 when she graduates. She has a federally-supported Free Application For Student Aid loan and some scholarships.

“I feel like it has gotten worse recently,” she said about college debt.

“I feel like there’s a lot of people like me, where I can foresee myself paying off my college debt. But I feel like there’s a lot of people where it’s going to be very difficult if not impossible.”


This story is part of the 2019 IowaWatch College Media Journalism Project. Student journalists working with IowaWatch interviewed students and financial aid advisers during the spring 2019 college semester for this collaboration. The journalists are: K. Rambo, Iowa State University and IowaWatch; Lauren Wade and Molly Hunter, University of Iowa and IowaWatch interns; Matthew McDermott, Cornell College and IowaWatch intern; Lily Bohlke, Grinnell College and IowaWatch intern; Omar Alcorta, Guy Tannenbaum, Cooper Maahs, Allyssa Ertz, Iran Carlos, Tanner Frost and Job Saunders, all of Buena Vista University; Logan Schroeder, Mount Mercy University; Claudia Chiappa, Coe College; Antonio Perez, Coe College; and Oliden Herrera, St. Ambrose University.

Special thanks to the following journalism advisers and professionals: Andrea Frantz, Buena Vista University; Joe Sheller, Mount Mercy University; Shawn Harmsen, Coe College; David Baker KALA Radio, St. Ambrose University.

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