Rising tuition, falling aid pose risk

Speaker warns college is being pushed out of reach for many

By Jacques Von Lunen, Columbian staff writer

Published:

 
photo“We are seeing slight increases in student indebtedness (overall).” Justin Draeger President of the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators

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A perfect storm of rising tuition and falling student aid is choking off access to college, the head of a national financial aid group said during a Wednesday visit to Vancouver.

Justin Draeger, the president of the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators, spoke during the public affairs lecture series at Washington State University Vancouver.

American higher ed is being privatized, Draeger told The Columbian -- not in terms of public versus private schools, but in terms of who’s paying for college.

A gradual shift started taking place perhaps as far back as the 1980s, but certainly in the last 12 years, Draeger said. Higher education less and less is subsidized by the public and is instead paid for by individuals and families.

Draeger spoke about these trends on a national level, but Washington numbers bear out his statements.

The cost of educating a student at WSU has stayed virtually flat in the last two decades, when adjusted for inflation, Elson Floyd, president of the Washington State University system, wrote in a Seattle Times op-ed Wednesday.

But the cost is paid in different ways now. In 1987, state money covered 84 percent of the cost of going to WSU and students paid $1,732 per year, Floyd wrote. Under Gov. Chris Gregoire’s latest budget proposal, the state would pay only 35 percent, which means students would pay $10,874 in tuition, he wrote.

Vancouver’s other public college campus has experienced the same shift. A few years ago, the state paid about 60 percent of Clark College’s operating expenses, Bob Knight, the college’s president, recently said. By the end of this year, the state is expected to cover less than 40 percent, he said.

These cuts to state budgets have been accompanied by cuts to some federal student aid programs, which makes going to college even more expensive, Draeger said.

It all adds up to a greater burden on students and families, and to more debt, he said.

“We are seeing slight increases in student indebtedness (overall),” Draeger said. “But we’re seeing more students having to borrow, particularly low-income students.”

Nationwide, the total amount of outstanding student loans exceeded the total amount of consumer credit card debt last year, according to national news reports. The New York Federal Reserve is projecting that total student loan debt will exceed $1 trillion this year.

Many states, including Washington, have tried to keep the burden on students down by mandating that the schools can only increase tuition by a certain percentage after state budget cuts.

“Unfortunately, that degrades the quality of education for everyone,” Draeger said. “It builds in perverse incentives that go against the mission of public schools.”

When states cut appropriations and then limit tuition increases, colleges are left with a budget hole to plug. That incentivizes institutions to look for out-of-state students who pay higher tuition, which means less access for in-state students, Draeger said. That reduces college access.

The University of Washington last year cut its number of in-state students to make more room for out-of-state applicants. It has reversed that this year after legislation mandating a certain number of in-state students went into effect.

The cost of going to college was one of the topics brought up in President Barack Obama’s State of the Union address last month. Obama put colleges on notice about keeping costs under control.

“It’s a laudable goal that everybody buys into,” Draeger said. “Certainly we want to keep the net price of college down. The problem is, sometimes that type of rhetoric places the onus on colleges, when they’re just subject to all these different dynamics of funding.”

The president basically said schools would get less federal money if they increase tuition.

“It’s pretty stern language,” Draeger said. “The problem is that it exacerbates the problem, particularly for schools that serve high numbers of low-income students.”

The schools that serve the highest number of low-income students generally are also the schools that have the least amount of money, Draeger said. Trying to hold them responsible by reducing federal money ultimately will affect already disadvantaged students in some way, he said.

Draeger had some advice to students who seek to change the culture long-term -- talk to legislators.

“Students have a story,” he said. “Congressmen are much more apt to listen to students and parents than to lobbyists in D.C. on these issues.”

Jacques Von Lunen: 360-735-4515; jacques.vonlunen@columbian.com;http://twitter.com/col_schools.