College tuition soars as states reduce funding

Published: Wednesday, March 6 2013 11:10 p.m. MST

Anthony Carnevale, a leading labor economist, is director and research professor of the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce.

Phil Humnicky, Phil Humnicky/Georgetown Univ.

Growing enrollments and declining state budgets have been putting the squeeze on colleges and universities for the past 25 years, but the problem got a lot worse last year, says a new report from the State Higher Education Executive Officers Association.

That's bad news for college students and their families, because it falls to them to make up the difference. The percentage of college costs supported by tuition has climbed steadily from 23 percent in 1987 to 47 percent in 2012. Average tuition rates in the U.S. climbed a record 8.3 percent last year.

The vise grip is worse for Utah schools, where money from the state declined by 26.6 percent since 1987, more than at the majority of schools around the nation. The national average for declines in state funding for higher education is 23.1 percent.

At the University of Utah, full-time student enrollment went up from 23,306 in fall of 2007 to 27,164 in fall of 2012. Over the same period, state education funding to the U. declined from a high of $227.8 million in 2008-09 to $197.8 million for this academic year. Predictably, annual tuition rose by roughly $3,000 over the same five years.

Searching for answers

The pain of rising college costs extends far beyond the pinch it puts on student pocketbooks.

Public colleges and universities in the United States enroll more than 70 percent of all post-secondary students, according to a statement from the State Higher Education Executive Officers Association. The accessibility and quality of public schools will determine the competitiveness of the U.S. workforce for the next half century, the statement said.

The group calls for colleges and universities to reduce costs and time to a degree, improve teaching, and increase the number of students who graduate ready for the workplace. Discussion about those very thoughts has increased among education watchdogs since President Barack Obama brought them up in his recent State of the Union address.

The president said he wants to prompt colleges to keep costs in line by shifting federal grants and loans away from schools that fail to keep tuition down and instead funnel that money to schools that serve needy students well — changes that would leverage $10 billion annually to keep tuition down, according to a White House fact sheet.

The $170 billion spent each year on federal aid to higher education is "a huge potential lever" for making sure colleges work as hard at graduating students as they do in recruiting them, said Amy Laitinen, deputy director for higher education at the New America Foundation.

"Access to a college education is important, but it needs to be access to education with a degree that means something — without a sack-load of debt that is crushing people on a day-to-day basis," Laitinen said.

Labor economist Anthony Carnevale, director of Georgetown University's Center of Education and the Workforce, also likes the idea of using federal money to drive down costs. But Carnevale said it will take more than that to reform higher education. Colleges will have to find ways to do their work more efficiently, and at lower cost.

Technology is one answer to educating more people for less money, he said. It's a revolution already underway, as the growth of online schools shows. Narrowing the gap in educational performance between privileged and disadvantaged students is another area in which smart use of technology can help, said Bob Wise, former governor of Virginia and president of the Alliance for Excellent Education.

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