sense; Today's college students mortgage the future to pay for a present
dream: a college degree
--Wyatt Buchanan and Heather Frye, Lewiston Morning Tribune
Stories about higher education costs usually go this way: Every year state support sags, tuition jumps and students beat their chests in anger.
Despite the outrage, a record number of students attend college the next fall.
Four or five years later, they graduate with a record amount of debt.
These stories recycle through newspapers and magazines annually, making students' and educators' outcries seem somewhat cliched.
But years of this shift from state support to student debt has created a looming problem for the higher education community.
"Rich kids are always going to be able to go to school. That's the reality," says William Marler of Seattle, a member of the board of regents for Washington State University. "Poor kids will go as long as grants are available.
"The middle class, because they're not as eligible for direct grants, are going to get squeezed into a position where their debt is greater and greater and greater.
"I think the only give in the system is middle-class people not being able to afford to go to college."
Administrators are concerned but say their hands are tied by the state and how much money legislators decide to give to higher education each year.
This year, the Washington higher ed budget was cut by 6.9 percent and legislators took the lid off tuition increases, which could go as high as 16 percent.
In Idaho, the Legislature chopped the budget for the state's universities and Lewis-Clark State College by 10 percent. Student fees will increase by nearly 12 percent.
Idaho pays 80 percent of the cost of education; students make up the other 20 percent. But that's changing.
In Washington, the ratio is about 60 percent state support, 40 percent from students. With this year's funding cuts and tuition increases, many predict that ratio will even out at 50-50.
"The current uncertainty of Washington's funding for higher education leaves students and their families in a very difficult position," says Charlene Jaeger, WSU vice president for student affairs.
"They are questioning how much tuition will be increased not only this year but in future years."
Washington needs to keep its best students in the state, Jaeger says, but shrinking support makes that difficult.
"We're on a slippery slope by adding more indebtedness to our students and their families," she says.
THE 20-YEAR PICTURE
Consider this: 20 years ago, when members of the University of Idaho class of '82 donned mortar boards and tassels, they had paid $1,836 in fees for the degrees they took home at graduation -- that's a total of $1,836 in fees for four years.
The class of '92 laid out about $3,189 in fees for bachelor's degrees.
This year, students who manage to graduate in the now rare four-year span will have paid at minimum $8,902 in fees for their ink-and-parchment passes to the future.
If that were the total cost, college might be affordable for parents with just one kid in college.
But fees are only the beginning. By UI estimates, a resident undergraduate pays about $11,150 annually -- 21 percent of Idaho's median income for a family of four.
The fee pricetag for UI, often considered a collegiate bargain, has tripled in the past decade, and the '82 grads, who now have college-age kids of their own, are facing a fourfold increase.
Inflation in higher education has far outpaced income growth.
The parents of the UI class of '82 were, on average, making $23,500 for a family of four. That's increased by about 125 percent to $53,000 for that same family today.
But in the same time period, UI's fees have zoomed by nearly 340 percent.
Of that $11,150 current total cost , parents and students are expected to contribute about $6,721 annually on average, says Dan Davenport, UI director of student financial aid.
The rest is expected to come from sources such as scholarships and loans.
But while standards can vary between states, most students from a two-income family are not eligible for need-based financial aid if the family income exceeds $45,000 annually.
And average-earning parents of students who made average marks on their college entrance exams can't count on their children qualifying for scholarships or other grants.
"Families understand they need to save," says Davenport. "But the obligations the state has set are not meeting with the needs of students. It can't always be the parents; they just can't pay for it all."
NOT PAYING THEIR SHARE?
But are Idaho students behind the curve in financing their own education?
The common cry is that Idaho underfunds higher education. But Idaho is paying among the highest percentage of its resident college students costs in the West, submits Wayland Winstead, UI executive director of institutional planning and budget.
Yes, Winstead says, state support in Idaho is weakening. "But in Idaho the students are not paying their fair share."
And yes, college costs affect access, he says, especially in a state where the median income is low and only half of high school graduates move on to college.
However, Winstead says, "It's a false economy to have access to a low-quality post-secondary education."
And so, college administrators are forced to look to other sources of revenue, including the resources of students and parents.
THE TROUBLE IN IDAHO
If they qualify for college, Idaho students are constitutionally guaranteed a tuition-free education. Idaho, its founders wrote into law, will foot the bill for instruction at the state's universities and college.
But times and economies change. In 1977, the UI established a facility fee, which helped pay for building and field maintenance. By 1982, students were paying the facility fee, an activity fee to finance student government and media, and a $20 "matriculation fee" to pay other costs, including a portion of administrative salaries.
Then Idaho's economy hit a massive speed bump and higher education funding was cut so severely the State Board of Education was forced to respond by allowing the state schools to double fees. The token matriculation fee rocketed more than 200 percent to $220.
The next year, the board approved another fee hike of 16 percent, and the next, nearly 20 percent.
Fee increases were capped thereafter, but have continued a steady rise at an average 6 percent per year.
The largest increases have continued to be in the matriculation fee, a pool of money that allows administrators maximum flexibility in how it is used. The UI matriculation fee is now $1,371 per year, about half the total $2,720 in fees.
With state board approval in April, resident undergraduate fees will increase by 11.9 percent at the UI, another $162 per year.
Ten percent fee increases are expected the next two years.
In response to the current budget crunch, the UI also has significantly increased other fees, including a professional fee for law and architecture students, tuition for out-of-state students, graduate fees, and per-credit fees for summer, professional and graduate courses.
Student health insurance will add another new cost. Students without proof of insurance will have to pay an extra $600 annually for medical coverage this fall.
THE COST OF NOT GOING TO COLLEGE
While the cost of going to college is high, the cost of not going is still higher.
Most jobs that pay above the national poverty level require at least some college.
Time was, a young man or woman ready to work had a shot at a career without a degree. Now, even in the service sector, more and more employers are demanding a diploma.
According to 2000 Census figures, a high school graduate earns about $23,000 per year, while an associates degree will pull in about $32,000 annually and a bachelor's degree is worth about $41,000 per year.
High school dropouts can expect to make $13,000 to $16,000 per year.
"You almost can't afford not to go to college," says UI's Davenport.
WHY SO HIGH?
Why do higher ed costs go up faster than inflation?
"Salaries," says Keith Hasselquist, chief fiscal officer for the Idaho Board of Education.
The Consumer Price Index, used to track inflation, includes the price of common goods such as milk and eggs. Higher ed costs, which also are charted on a Higher Education Pricing Index, rise considerably faster because personnel costs are included.
Scientific equipment and research journals, subscriptions for which can cost $8,000 to $10,000 annually, contribute to increases.
But salaries still account for the largest portion of university general education spending. The UI spends about 70 percent, fringe benefits included, of its $107 million general education budget on staff, faculty and administrative salaries. About 55 percent of that is spent on faculty.
WSU pays out 82 percent of its $272.7 million general education budget in salaries and benefits. At LCSC, it's 81 percent of $14.7 million.
For the fourth consecutive year, faculty salaries nationally stayed ahead of inflation by a small margin, reports the National Association of University Professor's Web site. In Washington and Idaho, faculty salaries still rank well below the national average, even among peer institutions.
At the UI, full professors, the top faculty earning category, averaged $57,700 in 1998. By 1999 that figure was $61,100.
LCSC professors in 1998 earned around $47,000. That went up $900 in 1999.
UI salaries ranked highest in the state, but below its peer average of $67,000 and well below the national average of $72,000. Nationally, professors in some disciplines, such as the sciences, averaged $96,000 annually.
Professor at WSU brings in about $61,000 on average, up from $58,533 in 1999. WSU average salaries rank in the bottom 25 percent nationally, as well as being fourth from the bottom among peer institutions.
THE HIGHER ED SPIRAL
It seems paradoxical. More and more students cannot afford college, yet more and more attend every year.
This fall, 21,798 students attended WSU on one of its four campuses. That number increases every year and is approaching its limit at Pullman.
The attendance total at UI was a record 9,610 students, and at LCSC a record 2,953.
So while costs increase and students complain, they are still paying the bill -- about $13,800 at WSU this year, $11,150 at UI, $10,618 at LCSC.
How they are paying the bill, however, highlights the squeeze middle income students face.
Chio Flores has worked in several financial aid positions at WSU and says 10 years ago, she would press parents and students to look to loans only if absolutely necessary.
"Now when I talk to parents and students, I tell them they will have to borrow if they have not set aside sufficient savings," says Flores, associate director of student financial aid and scholarship services.
Since 1992, when the federal government made student loans available basically to anyone who wanted them, the amount of money borrowed from the government each year has gone from about $20 billion to $37 billion, making up half of student aid, according to the College Board's publication, Trends in Student Aid.
Federal Pell grants and state grants -- money that doesn't have to be paid back -- have stayed at about the same level over the same period.
The result is a shift in financial aid largely to loans, Flores says.
At WSU, for example, undergraduate students received about $30.5 million in scholarships and grants last year. To make up the rest, students and their parents borrowed $57 million in loans.
Those numbers include federal and parent loans, as well as bank loans, to which many students are turning.
"Based on what we see in alternative loan volume, the (federal) loans aren't doing it," Flores says. "Lenders saw a market where students were borrowing as much as they could and still couldn't meet their needs."
Before 1994, nonfederal loans were basically nonexistent. By 2000, students nationwide borrowed $4.5 billion from sources other than the government.
All that money has to be paid back.
When the average WSU undergraduate student gets a four-year degree, $15,000 in debt comes with it.
At LCSC, the average debt load for a graduate is $4,400.
The average undergraduate walks away from the UI with $18,710 in loans. That means within three months of graduation, that student will have a $229 monthly payment that will go on for 10 years and total $27,500.
A 15-year loan with graduated payments for low earners brings the total to $35,800, after interest.
An Idaho student from a median-earning family is eligible for about $10,000 per year in federal loans.
Students who borrow that amount for four years and pay it off on the graduated system over 24 years, will spend more than $101,000 for the loans.
Meanwhile, students cruise around campus in their cars, type on their laptops and talk on their cellular phones.
There's been a shift in what students view as necessities, Flores notes.
Kathleen Monda, a WSU freshman from Woodinville, Wash., says her parents pay for her tuition, room and board, and books.
"If I want anything else, I have to earn money," says Monda, 19. Those extras include clothes and entertainment.
Tara Kansanback divides her school bill three ways among her parents, her scholarships and her loans.
She works at the student dining center to earn extra money.
"I think it's expensive to go here, but lots of places are expensive," says Kansanback, 18, a WSU freshman from La Center, Wash.
She tries not to think about how much she will owe when she graduates and says young students should not worry about taking out loans.
"Loans make it possible to go to school now and pay later," she says. "If you can go, go. Repay the cost when you have a job."
When students do spend their money on extras like cellular phones or computers, older generations should remember students' lifestyles are different now, says Annie Brown, vice president of the Associated Students of WSU.
"The school recommends that you bring a computer and students don't use regular phones. They use cell phones because they're cheaper," Brown says.
"Students make sacrifices by eating Top Ramen and not doing anything else besides studying."
Tuition increases next year will price out some WSU students from returning, Brown says. She and other student leaders have organized a letter-writing campaign that sent 1,400 pleas for help to legislators in Olympia.
They are working on a second letter.
Karl Boehmke agrees with students that the fix to this spiral of tuition increases and debt lies in Olympia.
"Tuition is going to go up again and the reason, again, is the state is cutting back on support of higher education," says Boehmke, executive director of budget and planning for WSU.
"It's not that the cost of providing services goes up. The problem is we get less support from the state and more of the burden is shifted to students."
As a regent, Marler sees that coming back to bite the state if the cost burden breaks students' backs.
"I fear we're going to limit our ability to educate our people," he says. "And that's fundamentally wrong."
Buchanan and Frye may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
State College, 500 8th Avenue, Lewiston, ID 83501 (208) 792-5272