Increasing cost of college leaves parents scrambling
By Susan Frick Carlman firstname.lastname@example.org February 23, 2012 10:12PM
Sue and Jack Hannan look through Jack's file of college brochures on Thursday, Feb. 23, 2012, in their home. | Jeff Cagle~For Sun-Times Media
A study published last spring found updated attitudes about the value of a college education and the myriad expenses it entails.
Said the higher education system in the U.S. fails to provide students with good value for the money they and their families spend.
Said college is too expensive for most Americans to afford.
Said college has been a good investment for them personally, however.
Surveyed adults agreed that, on average, the income levels of those with degrees were that much higher than those without them, because of their education decisions.
The median gap in annual earnings between a high school and college graduate, as reported by the U.S. Census Bureau in 2010.
Segment of adults age 18 to 34 without degrees who are not currently in school and say the need to support a family has kept them from continuing their education.
Identified a college education as extremely important in securing and keeping a job.
Source: Pew Research Center
Updated: March 25, 2012 8:01AM
The bottom line is, well, the bottom line.
As families of college-bound students maintain the tradition of strategizing for meeting the expense of a degree, education officials and legislators face their own daunting challenge: keeping the cost of that degree within their grasp.
“It’s definitely shocking when you start looking at the numbers,” said Naperville resident Sue Hannan, whose son Jack is a senior at Naperville Central High School now finalizing his plans for school next fall. “It’s kind of crazy.”
In an attempt to cap the cost, Jack registered with Fastweb, an online service that gives him a heads-up on grant opportunities he might not otherwise find.
“There’s something that comes through almost every day and he’ll go, ‘OK, I think I’ll apply for this,’” Hannan said.
Like all incoming students and their families, the Hannans know the cost of college continues to climb. The variables in play range from pulled-back state support to the needs of growing subpopulations of students to incoming students arriving on campus less well prepared than their counterparts in years past. Institutions also are in continuous competition for the best facilities and professors.
According to the College Board Advocacy & Policy Center, average in-state tuition and fees at four-year public colleges this school year rose 8.3 percent, and now exceed $17,000 a year when room and board are included. Private nonprofit four-year schools raised their tuition and fees by 4.5 percent, to an average of $28,500, according to the study, which also noted the Consumer Price Index increased 3.6 percent between July 2010 and July 2011.
The Hannans were stunned to learn the University of Illinois “really wasn’t much of a bargain,” Sue said, when compared to other in-state rates. Jack is leaning strongly toward Marquette University. It costs more, but not by much.
“It was surprising, because when you look at the actual sticker price ... even though Marquette is a private school, both schools were willing to give (scholarship) money,” his mom said. “The private schools are more bang for your buck.”
Harold Wilde, president of North Central College in Naperville, said the cost of higher education at both public and private schools is a complicated topic.
“Very often newspaper headlines talk about tuition (increasing), but that doesn’t really tell the story,” he said. “The real question is what is that new freshman going to be paying?
“It’s a hard story to tell, in a way. The cost of higher education, while it has gone up over the last 20 years, in many ways the net cost has not gone up very much. ... The challenge is how do you address it at the same time when you have burgeoning needs?”
Wilde said over the past several years, North Central’s net cost — the amount families pay after grant aid and scholarships have been factored out — has remained the same or perhaps gone down, because programs have been expanded in response to the down economy. The College Board study found net prices increased by an average of about 1.4 percent annually over the last five years at public four-year schools. Those increases still made college less affordable, the organization said, given that average family inflation-adjusted incomes have fallen over the past decade.
For North Central students enrolled in eight to 12 credit hours, the current rate for one year of tuition is $29,493, but many pay less than that.
“Oftentimes people don’t make a distinction between tuition and the net cost of attending school,” Wilde said. “At most schools, especially private institutions, between the sticker price and what people pay there’s quite a big difference.”
President Barack Obama wants universities and colleges to work harder on keeping a degree affordable. He has begun to pressure them to contain tuition rates or face losing some federal aid.
“We are putting colleges on notice,” Obama said in an appearance late last month at the University of Michigan. “You can’t assume that you’ll just jack up tuition every single year. If you can’t stop tuition from going up, then the funding you get from taxpayers each year will go down.”
Students with loans are graduating on average with more than $25,000 in debt despite the federal government pouring $140 billion annually into grants and loans.
Meanwhile, literacy among college students has declined in the last decade, according to a commission convened during the George W. Bush administration that said that American higher education has become “increasingly risk-averse, at times self-satisfied and unduly expensive.”
About 40 percent of college students at four-year schools aren’t graduating, causing some to wonder about the value being provided at the nation’s colleges.
But the president, who also is pushing for more tools to help students determine which colleges and universities have the best value, is targeting only a small part of the financial aid picture: the $3 billion known as campus-based aid that flows through college administrators to students. He is proposing to increase that amount to $10 billion and change how it is distributed, rewarding schools that hold down costs and ensure that more poor students complete their education. The bulk of the more than $140 billion in federal grants and loans goes directly to students and would not be affected by his proposal.
Wilde heard Obama’s comments as a call to action for higher education and government to take notice that the cost of college has spiraled out of reach for many families. In follow-up discussions, he said he hears the administration asking the education community to weigh in on the subject, in the hope of finding something that reflects what’s really going on and how people are thinking about it.
The reality for many public schools, said Illinois State University President Al Bowman, is that simple changes won’t easily overcome deficits. He said he was happy to hear Obama urge state-level support of public universities. But, Bowman said, given the decreases in state aid, tying federal support to tuition prices is a product of fuzzy math.
Illinois has lowered public support for higher education by about one-third over the past decade when adjusted for inflation. Illinois State, with 21,000 students, has raised tuition almost 47 percent since 2007, from $6,150 a year for an in-state undergraduate student to $9,030.
“Most people, including the president, assume if universities were simply more efficient they would be able to operate with much smaller state subsidies, and I believe there are certainly efficiency gains that can be realized,” Bowman said. “But they pale in comparison to the loss in state support.”
Regardless of the source, the higher costs ultimately rest on families. Jack Hannan’s schooling at Marquette is expected to cost about $44,000 annually, including room and board. The net cost has yet to be finalized.
“Now that he’s decided pretty much that it’s what he wants to do, we’re thinking, ‘OK, now how are we going to pay for this?’” Sue Hannan said.
She and her husband Tory think having Jack borrow about $5,000 per year, which he’ll one day repay, will be a decent incentive to stay focused on doing well. The remainder they’ll pay through parent loans and their own funds.
Wilde said there is a variety of ways to keep a lid on the cost of a degree, such as starting out at a local community college and living at home for a year or two of school. Plenty of degree candidates also hold down jobs to help cover their expenses.
“I’ve seen students who come to our school with modest means but who graduate with no debt,” he said. “Essentially they do it by working not just in the classroom, but in the community as well.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.