What is college going to cost?

Tuesday, October 23, 2012 at 12:32am

When Debra Sells started working in higher education more than 30 years ago, students in Tennessee were paying about 30 percent of tuition costs, while the state was covering 70 percent. But since that time, the tables have turned — and students are now taking on the brunt of the college cost burden.

According to Tennessee Board of Regents Chancellor John Morgan, students now pick up 67 percent of the cost, while the state pitches in 33 percent.

Sells, vice president for student affairs at Middle Tennessee State University, said the result has been increased stress on students.

“The amount of stress our students carry has certainly sky-rocketed … as they look at the financial obligation they make by going to college and the kind of debt they’ll have when they get out,” Sells said. 

“Particularly in the past three or four years where the economy has suffered so much that students [are] contemplating taking on a significant debt load at a time when the economy makes no guarantees to anybody about employment following that investment.”

And the issue isn’t lost on Morgan.

Morgan spoke about the student cost burden before the U.S. Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions last month.

“The result of today’s new fiscal reality is that higher education will continue to be in a difficult funding environment,” Morgan said. “Although understandable in context, the system’s historical practice of relying on tuition and fee increases to meet institutional spending needs is unlikely to be sustainable.”

Morgan asked the Senate to recognize several specific issues when it comes to college funding.

He told the committee that student aid funding is shifting more toward merit-based, rather than needs-based scholarships and grants. Morgan said $90 million of Tennessee lottery scholarship money went to families who could already afford college.

“We see a shift to more funding going to students whose families have demonstrated the ability to pay, and a growing number of students whose families do not have the means to pay cannot afford to enroll without expensive student loans,” Morgan said.

Morgan also asked the federal government to up incentives for states that hold steady or increase funding of public higher education.

“Ever-shrinking state funding levels threaten to reduce the amount of money available in the funding formula, creating an environment where institutions are competing in a zero-sum game for a piece of an ever-shrinking funding pie instead of striving for growing funding incentives,” Morgan said.

Local universities have taken several steps to help ease the financial burden on students. Admissions counselors at MTSU are equipped to provide information about loans and other financial issues to prospective students.

MTSU also tries to encourage students to finish their degree in four years, rather than chip away at classes over a longer period of time.

“We are trying to have some very clear conversations with students and their families ... to help them really think clearly about how to be as efficient as possible in going through the college process,” Sells said.

Sells recommended that students select a major early, utilize summer sessions, and take appropriate classes in order to shorten the amount of time in school — thereby limiting the financial burden.

But in a down economy, that might be easier said than done. Given the tough economic times, Sells said some students are having to work multiple jobs which cuts back on school time.

“We know that students who attend school part time have a much more difficult time finishing their degree ... It’s a real cost-benefit analysis that students have to do,” Sells said.

And even though challenges are mounting, Sells stressed that she believes that attending college is worth it due to future earning potential for college grads.

“What we know on a national basis is that even though it’s a scary proposition, citizens who have a college degree have a lower unemployment rate,” Sells said. “So, we still strongly believe that it’s a good investment.”

And, to Sells, that investment is particularly relevant in Tennessee.

“It’s a different situation, in that our students tend to stay here. They contribute to the state. They don’t come here for an education then go back to some other state,” Sells said. “So it’s just a clear connection between the investment in these students and their eventual payoff back to the state of Tennessee.

“From my perspective, I’d like to see us invest much more heavily in education and give our citizens a chance to be as productive as they can be for the good of the whole state. And those are the conversations we need to continue to have.”