1 of 6
Edward Linsmier, Deseret Morning News
Sean D'Amboise, a junior from New Gloucester, Maine, looks for geography books at the University of Utah bookstore.

As students swarm back onto Utah's college campuses this week, the first welcome-back gift many of them will get is an $800 receipt at the bookstore and a tuition bill 10 percent higher than last year.

And that's only a part of the picture.

Students will also be pinching pennies to pay for increased fees, transportation costs that have tripled in the past five years and school supplies that easily surpass $1,000 a year.

"Are we getting to the point where students are just going to say, I can't do this?" Barbara Snyder, vice president of student affairs at the University of Utah, said. "Utah is still quite a bargain, but that doesn't soothe a student when they've got a tuition bill to pay. What is the point where students and families are going to say, I just can't afford it?"

Altogether, Utah's college students are facing a rising cost of education that some leaders say may be heading for a tipping point.

And while the sticker shock for a college degree may not yet be deterring students in droves, the system is already seeing the effect of the cost crunch in an increase of part-time students, massive student debt and a longer length of stay as students work to finance their education.

"It's the frog in the boiling pot — it's not all at once," said Paul Brinkman, vice president of budgeting for the U. "It's a little tricky to know when someone would literally get priced out. Of course, that's probably occurring, but the question is, is it occurring in large enough numbers to be a concern?"

Sticker shock

Tuition increases at Utah's nine public universities and colleges are by far the largest chunk of the rising college cost with close to 10 percent increases annually since 2002. At the U., students have seen tuition go up by close to 50 percent in the past five years, and school leaders aren't projecting an end to those hikes any time soon.

But the real shock for many incoming freshmen is the additional costs not advertised in the school's tuition and fees. When books, room and board, transportation and extra expenses are tacked on, students at the U. will pay roughly $14,500 for a year's worth of education — a 45 percent increase in the past five years.

At Utah State University, undergraduates will pay more than $10,500 a year, according to the most recent 2005 estimates.

"If you give the full cost of attendance, it scares the heck out of people," Brinkman said.

Mark Spencer, associate commissioner for finance at the Utah System of Higher Education, said many new college students get their first big surprise at the campus bookstore, where they routinely rack up an average of $800 in books and supplies each semester. That cost, Spencer added, is going up by about 10 percent each year.

Room and board has also pumped up the cost of college, with rates going up about 15 percent at the U. in the past five years.

Natalie Corona, a sophomore at the U., opted to live at home while attending school to save on dorm fees. She also picked up two jobs during the school year that leave her few hours for classes and studying. There's little choice, the 19-year-old art major said, if she wants to pay for the rising cost of school without going into debt.

"It's getting ridiculous. Last year was bad, and this year's worse. Little things just add up, and it's getting hard," she said. "You have to cut corners anywhere."

Perhaps one of the biggest cost increases is one not unique to the student body — transportation. Gas prices and increasingly expensive parking passes have more than tripled transportation costs at the U. since 2000, according to estimates from the school's financial aid office.

In addition to the mandatory costs, students are piling on the cost of an education with items lumped into the hefty "other expenses" category estimated by most universities. Laptops, printers and software for classes can quickly add up, Snyder noted.

U. financial leaders estimate students spend about $2,412 a year in this "other" category — almost triple the estimate five years ago. USU also pegs the extras category at about $940 for commuters and $1,880 for on-campus residents.

That escalating cost is partly because many students are financing a lifestyle rather than a back-to-basics college life, Snyder said.

"Students have cell phones and vehicles, and it's just a more consumer-oriented age group than it used to be," she said. "It's that total cost of attendance, not just tuition and fees and books. It's a lifestyle."

Put together, the cost of attending college is far outpacing inflation and is the fastest-growing sector of the Consumer Price Index, noted Richard Vedder, a member of the secretary of education's National Commission on the Future of Higher Education and author of "Going Broke by Degree: Why College Costs Too Much."

The picture is the same nationally as in Utah, with total year-round college expenses going up by about 44 percent since the 2000-01 school year at public four-year institutions.

"You're paying more and getting nothing more in return. This is beginning to turn some people off," Vedder said.

Dwindling financial aid

At the same time, financial aid from federal and state governments is not keeping pace with the rising college cost. Although the College Board reports an 86 percent increase in grant aid in the past decade, that influx is not enough to compensate for rapid cost increases, Snyder said.

The College Board also found, for example, that the buying power of that grant money decreased from 42 percent of student costs to 36 percent between 2001 and 2004.

Utah colleges did get a one-time bump in financial aid this year, but Spencer said there's no guarantee the aid will continue.

Perhaps the biggest boon to college-goers is the federal Pell Grant, an award for students up to $4,050 per semester that never has to be repaid. While federal money for Pell Grants has increased slightly, Spencer said it's not enough to make a dent in student expenses and is still spread thin among students.

"Pell Grants haven't increased substantially for the last 20 years. The total amount that a student is permitted to borrow has not changed significantly," she said. "Students are bumping up against the upper limits of what they're able to borrow."

Even with financial aid, many of Utah's middle-class students are lost in a no man's land where they aren't eligible for financial aid but still can't afford the higher costs of college.

"If we don't get some additional funding through the federal government, we're going to start seeing students — we already have students — who don't think they can afford to come to school," said Cristi Easton, director of financial aid at Salt Lake Community College.

Going into debt

That scenario has left an increasing number of Utah students turning toward loans. Ten years ago, 60 percent of students with financial aid had grants, with only 40 percent taking out loans. Today, those percentages have switched.

In Utah, the average student carries about $14,790 in debt when he or she earns a bachelor's degree — a 45 percent increase since 1995.

At the same time, the number of loans processed through Utah's Higher Education Assistance Authority has grown by more than 85 percent in the past decade to a high of 100,736 loans in 2005.

While most student loans are not due for repayment until after graduation, many students are saddled with debt for years after earning their degree, Easton said.

"They can be real detrimental. We see students who have already borrowed upwards of $20,000 for a community college education. For them to pay that back is going to be pretty hard," she said. "It gets to the point where students say, 'I keep borrowing money and borrowing money and I just can't do this anymore.' "

For students like Max Hunsaker, that debt burden is guiding career choices. Hunsaker has put his master's degree program at Brigham Young University on hold while working full time to repay $15,000 in loans. While he wants to get his degree, he also doesn't want his debt to impact his future family.

"I didn't feel comfortable with the debt I already had to get further into debt," he said. "It's kind of the motivation for all the decisions I'm making right now."

Students' willingness to go into debt for an education — albeit a worthy goal — also provides one more excuse for schools to raise tuition because students will come up with the money, Vedder added.

"Someone else is paying the bills, at least temporarily, so you don't worry about them," he said.

Working through school

Besides piling on debt, many Utah students are juggling work with school to pay the bills. At the U., for example, 90 percent of students will work at some time while earning their bachelor's degree.

And while some work may actually improve school performance, Snyder said she's concerned many students end up losing momentum toward graduation. Enrollment trends among sophomores and juniors in particular indicate pocketbook strain, she said.

More students in their second and third years of school are taking time off to work and save money for tuition. The problem, Snyder said, is many of those students never return, especially in a hot job market.

"Of course that's going to be attractive. Unfortunately it's a short-term solution," she said.

The increasing number of working students also means fewer students are going to school full-time — about 68 percent compared to 79 percent 20 years ago.

More part-time students means longer lengths of stay and more excuses to never reach the graduation line, Snyder said.

Future costs

While education leaders see the impact of higher costs in loan volume and part-time students, Brinkman said it's hard to turn the trend around quickly. Without increasing efficiency and becoming more productive, he said higher education's price tag will continue to grow.

"I don't see much that would give me reason to say, 'Don't worry about it, tuition's not going up for the next 10 years.' That's not the case," Brinkman said. "Tuition will be higher and probably significantly higher."

One quick solution to ease some of the burden on students is for the state to chip in more toward higher education, he added. The state's share of the education budget has started to slip in recent years, particularly in the area of faculty compensation, he said.

State money used to cover 75 percent of compensation costs but recently has sunk to around 66 percent.

Comment on this story

"I think we're a good investment on the part of the state. Nonetheless, there are other needs," Brinkman said. "If the state and taxpayers are not interested in paying more, that would put additional pressure on tuition."

University leaders aren't betting on an increased state contribution but instead are urging students to prepare for college by creating a savings account and investigating financial aid options.

Easton recommends freshman students make her financial aid office one of their first stops on campus. She also urges students still in elementary school to start talking about the cost of college and saving for it.

"The unfortunate thing is we have so many students coming whose families have not done any planning for them to go to college," she said. "Even just saving $50 a month, they would have close to $10,000 when their child's ready for college."

E-mail: estewart@desnews.com