February 29, 2008

Study looks at public perception of rising cost of higher education

By Jennifer Rios
Scripps Howard Foundation Wire

WASHINGTON - Bobby Allyn, a sophomore international studies and journalism student at American University, said that since no one else in his family has ever attended college, he was left to figure out the process on his own. He is financing his own education and estimates he will accrue $80,000 in debt as an undergraduate.

With college costs increasing faster than inflation, many students share Allyn’s problem, though most don’t borrow so much.

A typical graduating college senior has about $20,000 in debt, according to the Institute for American Values, a private, nonpartisan, nonprofit organization. Ten years ago, that amount was $9,000.

Allyn, 20, was a member of a panel Wednesday that discussed a report issued that day, “Squeeze Play: How Parents and the Public Look at Higher Education Today,” a study on public perception of the rising costs of higher education. The report collected surveys from focus groups across the country and looked at other surveys going back to 1993 to track changes in opinion.

Public Agenda, an organization that conducts research on public opinion on policy issues, and the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education, which analyzes policy issues on opportunity and achievement in colleges, did the study.

Higher education is more important today than it was 10 years ago, the report and panelists agreed, but the number of Americans who say qualified, motivated students lack an opportunity for higher education is 62 percent, an all-time high.

Stanford University on Wednesday became the latest university to announce it would follow Harvard and Yale and no longer charge tuition to families who make up to $100,000 a year. Stanford will waive room and board fees for families making less than $60,000.

The prevailing thought during the three-hour forum was that families, universities and state and federal governments need to work together and that the four groups should re-establish a partnership to reduce the cost for lower-income families.

“These inequality barriers are opportunity barriers,” said Jared Bernstein, director of the living standards program at the Economic Policy Institute. EPI seeks to broaden public debate about strategies to attain a fair economy.

Families are doing too much, he said, so schools and government should do their parts. William Kirwan, chancellor of the University System of Maryland, agreed that it is imperative to open this dialogue, which schools have not always been willing to do.

The study found that African-American and Hispanic parents are more likely to believe that many qualified students do not have the opportunity to go to college.

More than 40 percent of college graduates who do not pursue graduate school blame student loan debt.

Low- and middle-income families end up paying the highest proportion of their income at colleges and universities, according to 2001 information from the U.S. Census.

Private, four-year universities saw the both most dramatic increase in the percent of low-income family income going toward education and the highest actual percent. In 1980, the poorest fifth of families paid just under 60 percent of their income for college. By 2001, that had risen to 123 percent of the family’s income.

By contrast, the richest fifth of the population paid about 7 percent of family income for college in 1980 and 11 percent in 2001.

“We have made it harder for people to go to college over the past decade and a half,” said Patrick Callan, president of the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education.

Borrowing money is the only option for some students, he said, which only solves short-term problems.

Steven Knapp, president of George Washington University, said the school was doing what it could, but unlike schools with large endowments, GWU has to come up with both income and donations each year. He said his plan is to look for ways to cut costs for students, including freezing tuition and financial aid for up to five years.

It costs about $50,000 to attend GWU per year, making it one of the most expensive schools in the country.

Several panelists said universities are not the only places that need to make adjustments.

Bernstein said the public needs to take responsibility for funding public universities.

“We can’t do that if we have the mentality that we have to cut taxes,” he said.

He said schools should not rely entirely on students receiving government aid, like Pell grants.

Allyn, who said he takes schoolwork seriously, was told by a guidance counselor at his Wilkes-Barre, Pa., high school that it was “a rash decision” to enter anything larger than a community college.

“I didn’t listen to her,” said Allyn, who is happy to be at AU.

He admitted it is scary to consider how much he will end up paying, but he is staying focused on academics and looking into internships and jobs.

Patrick Callan, founding president of the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education, said incurring modest debt is not a bad thing, and he does not want to discourage students like Allyn.

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