College affordability is a struggle as state aid drops, tuition rises

McClatchy NewspapersMarch 26, 2013 

— Making college more affordable to more people continues to be elusive, and the recent recession hasn’t made it any easier.

States have cut their support for public colleges and universities – deeply, in some cases – and schools have raised tuition as a result. They’ve also dropped classes, eliminated faculty and reduced other services to compensate.

For high school seniors nervously waiting for admissions decisions this spring from public colleges and universities, the recession’s impact might mean fewer acceptances, in some cases, and higher costs for many who do get in, according to a study on the impact of state education cuts by the liberal-leaning Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

“A lot of groups are calling for states to figure out a long-term strategy for funding higher ed,” said Julie Bell, the education program director for the National Conference of State Legislatures. “Almost nobody thinks states are going to return to where they were."

States began trimming their budgets after the recession took hold in 2008, according to the center, a research group that studies the impact of government spending on low- and moderate-income people. Few took steps – such as raising taxes – to replace what they’d lost, it noted.

“It’s a really dangerous trend” because tuition will keep growing beyond what increasing numbers of people can pay, said Phil Oliff, an author of the report.

More than three-quarters of U.S. undergraduates are enrolled in public colleges and universities, according to federal data. More than half of the money those schools received last year came from local governments, and most of that was tax revenue, the center reported.

But from Massachusetts to New Mexico, states on average are spending less per student – about $2,350 a year, or 28 percent – than they did five years ago, the center said.

Eleven have cut their financial support per student by more than a third, it found, while states such as Florida, Idaho, South Carolina and Washington have slashed even deeper, cutting back college support by nearly 40 percent or more.

California cut its higher education aid from nearly $3 billion in 2007-08 to about $2 billion currently, a 29 percent drop. A $125 million increase is expected for next year, as a result of tax increases approved by voters.

But the loss of state aid has taken a toll. The California State University has had to turn away 20,000 qualified applicants every year for several years, said Mike Uhlenkamp, a spokesman for the chancellor’s office.

Meanwhile, annual tuition at four-year-public colleges increased by an average of $1,850 – 27 percent – from 2008 to 2013, adjusting for inflation.

Tuition costs in California rose 72 percent, according to the report, though at $5,472 per year it’s still a bargain compared with other places, Uhlenkamp said.

Florida, Washington and Georgia weren’t far behind, with hikes of more than 60 percent.

The College Board reported last fall that the average tuition and fees at four-year public universities totaled $8,655 for the 2012-13 school year.

North Carolina has cut state higher education aid by nearly 15 percent since 2008.

Gov. Pat McCrory’s budget proposal last week includes a 5.4 percent reduction in state spending for the University of North Carolina system next year. He also asked for a 12.3 percent tuition increase for out-of-state students at UNC-Chapel Hill and other five other schools in the system. Last year, tuition and fees increased an average of nearly 9 percent for in-state undergraduates in the UNC system.

Beyond tuition, the report noted that schools have found other ways to compensate for the loss in state aid: “Public colleges and universities also have cut faculty positions, eliminated course offerings, closed campuses, shut down computer labs and reduced library services, among other cuts.”

At the same time that states and the schools they support grapple with money problems, student loan debt has been growing. Twenty years ago, fewer than half of students at four-year public and private institutions graduated with loans, according to Lauren Asher, the president of the Institute for College Access and Success, a nonprofit group that’s working to make college more accessible.

Now, two-thirds shoulder an average debt of $26,600.

“The big driver of student debt is college costs have risen faster than family income and the availability of grant aid,” Asher said.

States are starting to put budgets in place for next year. But without knowing what the federal budget for higher education will look like – such as whether Pell Grants, which aid low-income students – will continue and in what form, “it makes it very hard for them to plan,” Bell said.

Since only about a third of the students who attend four-year institutions graduate in four years, “the real issue is how to get kids through quicker so it costs the state and them less,” she said.

Several ways of speeding up the process are under discussion. One is to make it easier for students to transfer without losing credits. Another is to offer online courses.

California state Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg introduced a bill earlier this month that would require public colleges to accept credits for online courses for students who were on waiting lists for the in-class versions. Otherwise, he said, they often need more time to graduate if they can’t get off the waiting lists.

But Sandy Baum, a senior fellow at the George Washington University Graduate School of Education and Human Development, cautioned: “There should be flexibility, but we might risk just handing out pieces of paper to people who really haven’t had a college education. It’s just something to watch.”

Jane Stancill of The News & Observer contributed to this article from Raleigh, N.C.

Email: rschoof@mcclatchydc.com; Twitter: @reneeschoof

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