College costs, compounded

May 08, 2002

INCREASINGLY, a college-bound student is one who can get a loan -- or pay a great share of his or her own way. It's just not enough to be smart, especially during a recession, according to studies on college affordability released this month.

When the economy is in a tailspin, college costs go up: Administrative expenses outpace state spending on higher education, forcing schools to shift more of the burden to the students and their families.

It's a scenario playing out across the country and here in Maryland, where state spending on higher education is up but not keeping pace with costs, prompting regents to consider hiking tuition 5.5 percent for 2002-2003.

Nationally, every economic group except the rich is spending a greater portion of its income on college as rising tuition at the nation's four-year public colleges outstrips inflation. Tuition now gobbles up 25 percent of a poor student's family income, up from 13 percent in 1980, according to one study.

Colleges and state governments could slow the widening gap between haves and have-nots, but it would require formidable will on the part of legislatures and changes in college fiscal management.

The institutions first would have to discipline their spending habits. Adopting long-term efficiencies to break a roller-coaster cycle of financing new research and expansions in good times that can't be sustained during downturns would help, too.

Second, institutions and state governments could commit to doing right by financial aid programs that direct funds to those least able to pay. Many states and colleges are shifting funds from need-based to merit-based programs benefiting more middle-class families. That can lead to fewer low-income students getting the opportunity for the education that could help them rise out of poverty.

Finally, the federal government could commit to a greater investment in the need-based Pell grant aid program to help out where states are pinched.

The Bush administration proposed a miserly budget that would have forced cuts in the grant level, and Congress rushed to the rescue. Today, the grants cover a smaller portion of tuition than they did in the 1980s, but remain valuable to the families for whom college is a stretch. In the long term, though, only a serious commitment by legislatures and learning institutions alike can slow down the escalating price of a college education.

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