Saturday, May 26, 2018
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Students fret as tuition rates keep climbing

EAST LANSING, Mich. - Michigan State University senior Katie Wright worries college tuition is rising so fast that some working-class families, including her own, may soon find higher education unaffordable.

The zoology major, who hopes to become a veterinarian, works two part-time jobs on campus to help make ends meet.

Although she gets some help from scholarships and financial aid, Ms. Wright fears continued tuition increases might make her bills too large to pay.

Michigan State's governing board this week tentatively raised tuition for next fall by 9.6 percent, although the percentage eventually could go up or down depending on how much taxpayer money state government provides the university.

The initial price increase adds $798 to the annual bill for a freshman or sophomore from the state, pushing the annual total past $9,000 in some cases.

"I've been worried about paying for this year constantly, just figuring out how it's going to work out," said Ms. Wright, a 22-year-old from Swartz Creek. Nationwide, college tuition typically increases faster than general inflation. While that escalation has slowed somewhat in recent years, this summer's round of tuition increases indicate there are pockets in the United States where the price tag will increase significantly this fall. The states hardest hit often have struggling economies or other government budget problems that have limited the amount of general state taxpayer aid going to public universities.

The U.S. House this week passed legislation to lower interest rates on student loans and increase Pell Grant aid to poor people who want to go to college. It's part of a plan to help make school more affordable.

Michigan, with the nation's highest unemployment rate and a state Legislature that hasn't agreed to either raise taxes or cut costs by restructuring government, has a state budget situation that rivals the nation's worst.

The projected deficit for the fiscal year beginning Oct. 1 is at least $1.6 billion.

Some Michigan public universities, and a few in other states including Illinois, Colorado, and Oklahoma, plan tuition increases that are more than three times the projected general inflation rate, which is less than 3 percent.

At the other end of the spectrum, public universities in Ohio - after years of relatively high tuition increases - plan to freeze rates in most cases. Universities in several states appear to be settling in somewhere close to last year's nationwide 6 percent average increase.

The average tuition and fee bill nationwide at a four-year, public university reached $5,836 last academic year, up 42 percent from 2002-03 levels, according to data weighted by enrollment from The College Board.

In Michigan, average tuition and fees were about $7,260 last year, up roughly 35 to 38 percent since 2002-03, according to unweighted data provided by the Presidents Council, a group representing Michigan public universities.

Higher prices may be one of several factors why combined enrollment at Michigan's 15 public, four-year universities has dipped slightly in two of the last three years and stalled at around 288,000 students, ending a steady trend of increased student count.

Michigan State, the largest of the state's universities with about 45,000 students, says it hasn't had any decline of students from low-to-middle-income families, at least in part because of aggressive financial aid packages.

But university President Lou Anna Simon acknowledges that can't go on forever if tuition keeps rising. "I'm sure there's a tipping point," she said. "The trouble with tipping points is sometimes you don't know you've reached it until you're past it."

Oakland University in southeast Michigan plans to raise tuition by 13.9 percent, its largest increase since the economic doldrums of the early 1980s slashed Michigan's state university aid. This fall's increase means the annual bill for an undergraduate state resident taking 15 credits per semester would rise $971 to $7,927.

The University of Michigan plans to set tuition rates next week.

The lack of state funding may undermine a goal set by Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm to double the number of college graduates in the state.

At the University of Illinois, tuition will rise an average of 11.6 percent. Illinois government aid to universities has been flat the past few years after taking a cut in the 2003-04 fiscal year.

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