July 08–Students attending UW-Eau Claire this fall will face a bill five times the size of the one their parents paid a generation ago to attend the same school.
The total cost, including tuition, fees, and room and board, for a full-time student in the 2012-13 academic year will be $14,723, and it doesn’t take a math major to recognize that dwarfs the $2,818 a student’s parent might have paid in 1982-83.
That dramatic increase — more than double what an inflationary increase would have been — explains why many people are throwing around the word “crisis” when talking about today’s college affordability situation.
“We are definitely seeing more concern about the cost of school,” said Beth Boisen, financial aid director at UW-Stout, where the total cost of attending this year is even higher at $14,998. “The parents we have coming in were college attendees themselves, and when they went they were able to pay their own way. Once they start seeing today’s costs, there is a bit of sticker shock there.”
Accounting for a typical 5.5 percent increase in total costs annually, freshmen starting at UW-Eau Claire this fall would pay $63,705 if they graduate in four years. That number would be $65,125 at UW-Stout in Menomonie.
The result is a steadily rising mountain of debt students take with them, along with a diploma, upon graduation.
At UW-Eau Claire, slightly more than two-thirds of all graduates borrow money to get through school. The average loan debt of those borrowing students reached $22,391 for the class of 2011, up 81 percent from $12,371 in 1998. The average indebtedness among UW-Stout graduates is now about $27,000.
While that represents only a fraction of the amounts reported in some national horror stories about students attending private colleges or out-of-state universities and piling up $200,000 in debt, it’s still more than most people have lying around in their piggy banks — or even their college savings accounts.
“It is a tough time. There’s no question about it,” said Eau Claire attorney Ed Manydeeds, a member of the UW System Board of Regents.
Parents also squeezed
Making matters worse is a persistent economic downturn that has caused incomes to stagnate — and sometimes disappear — for many of the parents the government presumes will make significant contributions to their children’s education. That has led to a dramatic increase in the past few years of families appealing their initial financial aid award because of changes in financial circumstances such as lost jobs or reduced incomes, said Kathy Sahlhoff, financial aid director at UW-Eau Claire.
Likewise, at UW-Stout Boisen said it’s not uncommon for parents, after seeing what they are expected to contribute, to remark: “This parental contribution does not exist.”
It all adds up to a feeling of angst among middle class families and sometimes hopelessness for those lower on the economic scale, said Sara Goldrick-Rab, a senior scholar with the Wisconsin Center for the Advancement of Postsecondary Education and an associate professor of educational policy studies and sociology at UW-Madison.
“It’s hard to overstate how bad it is for the working poor in our state right now,” Goldrick-Rab said. “Many students I talk to feel like their life is going under because of all their college loans.”
Sadly, the risk is that fewer parents may push their children to give a university the old college try.
“Many parents now see the cost as too much and say, ‘I am not going to encourage my kid to do something I absolutely cannot afford,’ ” Goldrick-Rab said.
A popular policy among states is to charge as much as possible for public higher education and then redistribute that money like Robin Hood through financial aid, she said. “But the problem is poor people don’t believe Robin Hood is coming.”
Slipping state support
The biggest reason for the rapid rise in tuition at UW System institutions is a steady decline in state support, said UW System President Kevin Reilly, who pointed out that the same thing has occurred in public higher education across the country as states have grappled with tight budgets.
“If we don’t get that infusion of money from the state, someone has to make up the difference, and unfortunately that has to be the students and their parents,” Boisen said.
Since 1980, the state appropriation, after adjusting for inflation, has declined $4,105 per UW System student. To make up for that loss, tuition revenue has increased $4,723 per student during the same period.
The share of higher education costs funded by the state has plummeted at the same time that UW System enrollment has reached an all-time high of about 182,000 students.
“We’ve been successful in convincing more people than ever before how important it is to have some post-secondary education and credential for the future viability of a decent life … but at the same time states have been disinvesting,” Reilly said. “We kind of are shooting ourselves in the foot.”
Still, Reilly said UW System officials recognize the economy has been in terrible shape and thus higher education had to absorb its share of budget cuts. He just believes it’s time for the pendulum to start swinging the other way.
The state has a goal of generating a larger percentage of college graduates but has been defunding the institutions that produce them, Reilly said.
“It can’t continue that way,” he said, maintaining the state is reaching a tipping point at which more young people are at risk of being priced out of college.
U.S. Rep. Ron Kind, D-La Crosse, agreed, saying, “This is what comes from the state’s underinvestment. These costs are inevitably going to be shifted onto the backs of our students.”
Unfortunately, he added, it’s a recipe for economic decline in the United States if something isn’t done to change the downward spiral of higher education funding.
The 5.5 percent tuition hike Reilly recommended and the Board of Regents approved last month will cover only 30 percent of the more than $315 million budget cut the UW System absorbed in the last biennial budget and additional reductions announced later.
“We’ve got to eat that other 70 percent through our own capacity to get more efficient, and it’s getting harder and harder to do that in a way that doesn’t affect quality,” Reilly said.
Sahlhoff also pointed to research indicating that universities are unable to dramatically improve cost efficiency through technology like manufacturing and many other industries. Education, by contrast, still requires similar staffing levels to teach but also is expected to invest in the latest technology so students can be exposed to it.
So what’s a family with a college-age son or daughter to do?
First and foremost, Sahlhoff said, it’s important that families not panic and allow the sticker price to dissuade them from having their children seek a college education.
One reason is that about four of five students receive some kind of financial assistance, whether in the form of loans or grants, with 40 to 50 percent qualifying for need-based aid, Sahlhoff said.
“Everybody should apply for financial aid. Sometimes people are eligible for more than they think,” she said, noting that middle class families who don’t qualify for much grant aid but also don’t have unlimited savings to draw upon often feel the worst pinch.
However, with tuition rates continuously rising, “You just can’t work your way through school anymore like some people did years ago,” Sahlhoff acknowledged.
The UW System is attacking the affordability challenge in several ways, including studying ways to cut its costs, counseling students on strategies to graduate in four years and launching a new flexible degree program that will enable students to take more online classes and earn credits for competencies gained in the workplace.
In addition to paying tuition and fees for an extra year, students who take five years to graduate at UW-Eau Claire accumulate an average of more than $4,000 in additional debt, Sahlhoff said.
“Students should normally be able to get their degree in four years,” said Sahlhoff, who tries to ensure students recognize the responsibility that goes along with their family’s large college investment and recommends they develop a four-year plan, even if they haven’t declared a major when they start school.
While exceptions are legitimate for such choices as serving an internship likely to help a student’s career path, students often can make up for dropping a class or being unable to get a required class when they want it by picking up extra credits during summer school, Winterim or other special sessions, financial aid counselors advised.
Gov. Scott Walker and the UW System officials recently announced plans to offer a new “flexible degree” program that would allow students to begin classes any time they want, work at their own pace and earn credit for what they already know. The goal is to make it cheaper and easier to obtain a degree.
“Can it save money? Absolutely,” Reilly said. “If you can demonstrate competency in an area that equates to the first two courses in accounting … and go on into the higher level accounting courses in your major and thereby finish in a shorter amount of time, you’re going to save money.”
In announcing the program last month, Walker said the program would improve access to and affordability of higher education.
“This new model for delivering higher education will help us close the skills gap at an affordable price to get Wisconsin working again,” Walker said.
College life evolving
The flexible degree program, which Reilly vowed still would offer high quality despite concerns expressed by some, will represent a new option for students for whom saving money is a higher priority than enjoying a traditional living-on-campus college experience.
With skyrocketing college costs, Manydeeds said, “The way I went to college — living in a dorm and having a meal plan — is going to change for a lot of people.”
Students willing to forgo that traditional college experience, which can play an important role in helping young people learn responsibility and social maturity, can dramatically cut their costs by living with their parents and commuting to school. Room and board account for about half of a student’s projected costs.
Boisen recalled one creative parent recently who paid for her daughter to live on campus and make connections her freshman year, and then planned to have her commute the next three years to save money.
Another money-saving option is for students to attend cheaper UW System two-year colleges or technical colleges for a couple of years and then transfer to a comprehensive university to complete their bachelor’s degree.
“Nobody’s going to trace where you took every course,” Sahlhoff said. “They’re going to look at where you graduated.”
Of course, students also can limit their debt by working more hours while attending college and applying those earnings to tuition instead of high-end cellphone plans, big-screen TVs and a lavish social life.
“As the old saying goes, people have to live like a student while they’re in school so they don’t have to live like a student after they’re out of school,” Sahlhoff said.
In the new reality, those are the kinds of sacrifices many people may have to make for their college dreams to come true.
“If the aim is for people to get a college education, they can find a way to do it,” said Manydeeds, adding that regents directed UW System officials to take whatever steps they can to avoid having to ask for a similar tuition increase next year.
Stress relief sought
Another helpful step would be for the state to make it easier for students and their families to plan for future tuition hikes.
Goldrick-Rab said she hopes to talk to the governor’s staff about the possibility of the state providing guarantees about the cost of a four-year college education and available financial aid for incoming freshmen.
“It hasn’t been talked about much in Wisconsin, but it makes so much sense,” she said. “It’s so hard for families to know what they can count on now. We’re creating so much uncertainty.”
All of the stress created by rising tuition and debt levels has Goldrick-Rab concerned about the mental health of low-income college students, many of whom she talks to as part of a study she is co-directing on the impact of private need-based financial aid on college persistence and graduation.
“The word I hear the most is ‘scared,’ ” Goldrick-Rab said. “They are scared almost all the time. They talk a lot about being afraid the money they have now won’t be there next year or that the loans they took out will come due sooner than they expect. They are afraid of not getting high enough grades to keep their aid.”
What she doesn’t hear, Goldrick-Rab said, is college students talking about cutting classes and goofing around.
Instead, many students are skipping meals, postponing medical and dental care, and juggling work, family and school schedules in a constant struggle to meet their college financial obligations, she said, noting that 20 percent of the students she has interviewed suffered from clinical depression.
Return on investment
Despite the financial challenges, Reilly said he has no doubt that college is still a worthwhile investment — and not solely for individual students who get a degree.
In terms of strictly dollars and cents, it makes sense because the most recent projections show that on average a person with a bachelor’s degree will earn close to $1 million more than a person with just a high school diploma over the course of his or her career, Reilly said.
College degree holders also typically have more and better employment options, Boisen said, pointing to UW-Stout’s 98 percent placement rate as an example.
“The alternative is not getting an education, so you have to take the good with the bad,” she said. “We make sure students get an excellent education and are ready for employment.”
Increasing the number of degree holders also leads to higher tax revenues for states and other benefits for society, Reilly said.
“We also know from research that people who have college degrees tend to be healthier, they tend to volunteer more, and they tend to participate more in the various functions of American democracy,” he said. “Beyond just the wealth accumulation, it’s a good thing for the people living a richer, fuller life. It’s a good thing for the state and the country having citizens who are engaged in doing good work.”
Lindquist can be reached at 715-833-9209, 800-236-7077 or email@example.com.