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Published: Thursday, 5/2/2002

Hikes in tuition outpace paycheck growth

BY RYAN E. SMITH
BLADE STAFF WRITER

A national study released today confirms what many parents and students know: The cost of a college education is outpacing growth in family incomes and inflation.

For all but the wealthiest families, the report says, higher education has become less affordable over the last two decades.

The study was compiled by the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization with offices in San Jose, Calif.

In 2000, the group authored a report that graded each state in a number of areas related to higher education, doling out a “D-” to Ohio for affordability and a “C” to Michigan.

The new study finds the sharpest tuition increases were imposed at public campuses when the economy was weakest. At the same time, government efforts to lessen the financial pain for students and their families fell short, the study says.

The study finds that financial aid from federal and state governments has increased, but not as quickly as tuition. And as more federal aid is transferred to loans rather than grants, more students are borrowing more money than ever before.

Among the reports findings:

  • The amount of family income devoted to tuition at public four-year colleges and universities has risen from 13 percent in 1980 to 25 percent in 2000 for low-income families.

  • The average federal Pell Grant covered 98 percent of tuition at a public four-year college in 1986, but only 57 percent in 1999. Pell Grants are awarded to undergraduate students based on financial need and do not have to be repaid. The amount of money available depends on the level at which Congress funds the program.

  • Loans accounted for 45 percent and grants for 52 percent of federal student financial aid in 1981. By 2000, loans represented 58 percent of federal student financial aid, and grants represented 41 percent.

    These issues are compounded because the steepest increases in tuition at public colleges coincide with recessions, when students and families have a harder time paying for it, the study found.

    For the 2001-02 academic year, the average cost of tuition and fees for an in-state undergraduate student at a public, four-year university rose 7.7 percent to $3,754. Tuition and fees at private four-year colleges went up 5.5 percent nationally to an average of $17,123, although the study did not focus on private colleges.

    The national trends described in the report are even more pronounced in Ohio, which is among the bottom 10 states in funding higher education, according to Rich Petrick, vice chancellor for finance for the Ohio Board of Regents, which oversees public higher education in the state.

    “It's worse for us because we started at a low base,” he said.

    Ohio lawmakers imposed cuts on higher education as the economy soured, including a 6 percent reduction in the fall.

    As a result, tuition and fees for a resident undergraduate student at the University of Toledo in the fall, 2002, will be $5,836, 14.4 percent higher than they were the previous fall. UT President Daniel Johnson said that remaining affordable is one of the university's top priorities but declining state support has made that increasingly difficult.

    “The only way this recurring theme of affordability will be resolved is if our state legislators take action and make an investment in higher education,” he said.

    Bowling Green State University approved a 7 percent increase in tuition and fees for the summer and will consider its fall tuition in June.

    At Owens Community College, which had not increased tuition since 1996, the price will go up $10 a credit hour beginning this summer, meaning full-time students will pay $2,040 a year.

    The study, which relied on various federal and state statistics, focused on public institutions - both two and four-year state colleges and universities - since those are the schools that roughly 80 percent of America's college students attend.

    The wealthiest saw no change at all; between 1980 and 2000, the cost of sending a student to a public, four-year institution remained at 2 percent of income for the richest 20 percent of families.

    Those families between the top and bottom income brackets saw tuition at state schools take more of their income, though the increase wasn't as steep as it was for the poorest Americans, the study found.

    In 1980, tuition ranged from 3 percent to 6 percent of income for the middle groups. Two decades later, tuition took 5 percent to 11 percent of income, the study found.

    Similar patterns were found when the study examined tuition at much-less costly community colleges.

    Rising prices still don't deter most people from college. More than 65 percent of high school graduates are going straight to college, according to latest federal figures. However, many students are borrowing more, working more while at school, seeking less expensive campuses, and taking fewer courses, which can slow progress toward a diploma, Patrick Callan, president of the think tank that authored the study, said.

    If the trends continue, “you have to ask how much can families do before we start discouraging people,” Mr. Callan said.

    This report includes information from the Associated Press.



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