High college costs noted

National study ranks state schools among least affordable

`We're concerned about it'

Price called too high for students from low-income homes

January 08, 2002|By Alec MacGillis | Alec MacGillis,SUN STAFF

Maryland's public colleges and universities are among the least affordable in the nation, according to a report issued yesterday by an Indiana-based foundation, which says the state's four-year schools have relatively high tuition and meager financial aid for low-income students.

The report by the Lumina Foundation found that nine of the state's 13 four-year public colleges and universities are unaffordable, even with loans, for students from families with incomes of less than $28,380.

The study found that seven other states have such a low proportion of affordable public four-year institutions.

"One of the things that's notable about Maryland is that low-income students have fewer affordable choices than median-income students," said study co-author Derek V. Price.

The report found that the only four-year public institutions in the state that are affordable to students from low-income families are the University of Maryland, Baltimore County; Towson University; Coppin State College; and Morgan State University. The rest, including the University of Maryland, College Park, were deemed unaffordable.

The report also found that six of the state's 13 public four-year institutions are "inadmissible" - that is, they are so selective that the typical college-bound Maryland student would not be accepted by them. Most other states were found to have smaller percentages of selective public campuses, Price said.

Officials at the state's public institutions said yesterday that they will examine the study's findings closely in the coming days. A study released a year ago by the National Center for Public Policy in Higher Education gave the state a "D" for college affordability.

"We're concerned about it," said Karen Johnson, the state's secretary of higher education, whose office recently commissioned a study that called for an increase in state-funded, need-based financial aid. "This whole issue of access is very important."

George Cathcart, spokesman for the College Park campus, said one of the priorities of the university's fund-raising campaign is to raise money for need-based scholarships. Undergraduate in-state tuition and fees at the state's flagship campus this year are $5,341, not including room and board.

"Affordability is one of our greatest goals, and we know we're not there yet," Cathcart said.

The Lumina Foundation, an independent think tank funded by the sale in 2000 of the loan administration company USA Group, classified more than 2,800 four-year and two-year colleges and universities in its study.

Calculating cost

To determine whether to deem a school affordable, researchers took into account college costs, the estimated amounts families of various incomes could pay and the financial aid available to them.

Nationally, the report found that fewer than 100 of the country's more than 1,500 four-year, private colleges are affordable to students from low-income families. In Maryland, only Villa Julie College, Sojourner-Douglass College and Capitol College were considered within reach.

The report met with intense criticism yesterday from the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities, which argued that it underestimated the financial aid that private colleges grant to low-income students.

"A lot of our institutions actively reach out each year to recruit low-income students and make herculean efforts to do so," said Roland King, the organization's vice president for public affairs. The report "is undoing years of effort to convince people that college is possible."

`Not serving students'

Thomas G. Mortenson, an Iowa-based higher education analyst unconnected with the study, defended it, saying it parallels his findings that most families with incomes as high as $50,000 come up $3,000 or $4,000 short, on average, in paying for college, even after they've received financial aid.

Often, he said, students take full-time jobs to make up the difference but drop out because they don't have enough time left for schoolwork.

"There is a lot of institutional defensiveness about [Lumina's] conclusions, and this is what happens when you name institutions - everyone gets their defenses up," Mortenson said. "This study says what I've been trying to say for a decade: Colleges and universities are not serving students from low- and lower-middle-income families well."

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