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Published: Tuesday, 11/5/2002

The burden of college

It's no surprise to Ohio college students and their parents that tuition costs are skyrocketing. Ohio State University set the pace with a tuition increase of 19 percent.

But if it is true that misery loves company, families in Ohio can draw solace from the fact that, although this state's tuition fees are among the highest in the country, tuition costs nationwide at public colleges and universities are up an average of 9.6 percent.

The College Board's annual survey also noted a 6 percent hike in costs for room and board at the public facilities.

Students at private colleges and universities took a smaller hit, with tuition up 7.5 percent to an average of $18,273, and room and board costs up 4.7 percent to an average of $6,479.

Throughout the nation, state legislatures, dealing with reduced tax revenue, have been cutting back on their support for state colleges and universities. And these schools, in turn, are looking more to students to take up the slack.

Declining funding by state legislatures of public colleges and universities has particular economic development consequences for a rust-belt state like Ohio. Here the percentage of citizens with college degrees is relatively low at a time when college experience is required to fill a multitude of new jobs, jobs that won't come to Ohio if Ohioans aren't as educated as they need to be to compete globally.

In addition, what endowment or investment income was available to public institutions - no match for most private endowments - has shrunk well below expectations.

In the face of all this Ohioans have watched a great deal of wringing of hands and gnashing of teeth, here and elsewhere.

Still, the College Board found that college was affordable for most Americans. Some 70 percent of them go to schools whose combined tuition and fees are under $8,000 a year.

Colleges can do a lot to keep the price of higher education steady without sacrificing their basic mission. One of the most important things is to assure that students get the courses they need to graduate within four years. That's been something of a rarity of late.

The University of Iowa, considering a 10 percent tuition increase next year, started a special program to do that seven years ago. It was prompted by Board of Regents' concern that only a third of students enrolled were graduating in what had once been a standard time-frame. Now they're at 48 percent, while a mere 28 percent of the students not in the program finish in four years.

Public colleges could and should do more to build endowments of sufficient size to sustain them in bad times and through bad legislatures. Self-sufficiency remains a worthy concept.

But even when tuition is rising and incomes are falling, if college is a goal, the whole family, and sometimes the extended family, work together to make it possible.

They save, scrimp, cash in investments, take on debt, vie for scholarships, and work extra jobs. They also eat out less, go to movies less, and vacation in the backyard. Whatever it takes.

But since an educated citizen is a boon to his city, state, region, and country, who can blame families for wondering why it always has to be so difficult?



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