In a surprising announcement last week, the Presidents Council of the State Universities of Michigan, a nonprofit organization representing the 15 public universities in Michigan, released a study claiming that financial aid is outpacing tuition costs. The general suggestion of the study was that the so-called crisis over college costs is overblown. This claim, however, may shock the students who slave away in the University’s dining halls through the work-study program, the students on track to graduate with tens of thousands of dollars in debt and those who have quit school because they simply cannot afford to graduate from the University. The report, which has already been widely publicized by national media, may be misleading in its assertions.
After a decade in which college tuition and fees rose a staggering 47 percent, the study’s findings came as somewhat of a surprise. According to the council, tuition at the average four-year public university rose 14 percent this year, but a record $105 billion was available in aid — $13 million more than last year. The council also determined that the average college student pays only 45 percent of his college costs today, down from 60 percent in 1998. The study, unfortunately, failed to recognize that a large portion of available aid — $62 billion — takes the form of loans, not grants and scholarships. At a school as expensive as the University, funding an education through loans can put a graduate in debt for decades.
The Bush administration has expressed pride in the fact that more students are receiving financial aid than ever before. But most of these grants and financial-need scholarships are aimed at lower-income families. While this is certainly a statistic to celebrate, it should not be an excuse to forget the neglected middle class. The middle class, termed the “engine that drives America,” has been forced to bear the brunt of college tuition increases, and little has been done to help it. These families often make too much money to qualify for the need-based scholarships and grants that low-income students receive, but not enough to fully finance a higher education. As a result, many middle-class families choose not to send their children to elite — and often expensive — universities. The students who nonetheless choose to attend elite schools are burdened with thousands of dollars in loans. The council’s report, which suggests that college is become more affordable, does not address the “middle-class squeeze” that is constraining the educational choices of the typical family.
Attending the University, an elite and expensive public school, presents some unique challenges. Only 8 percent of students enrolled in four-year institutions attend schools that charge more than $24,000 a year, and the council’s report indicates that the average student across the country pays only about $6,000 a year to attend college. By these standards, the University is extremely costly; in-state students can expect to pay well over $8,000 in tuition per year and out-of-state students pay at least the benchmark $24,000.
In a troubling note, the report indicated that the greatest increases in aid came from the schools themselves. This situation may not be tenable. Public universities, which have an obligation to provide affordable education, face intense budget pressures. States, which are gripped by fiscal deficits, are cutting higher education funding at a time when operating costs, especially health care, are rising at double-digit rates. The future of university-sponsored aid is in jeopardy, as colleges struggle to manage the precarious balance between maintaining standards, moderating tuition and staying financially solvent.
The council’s report, while superficially encouraging, does not adequately address the problems facing students who are attending — or looking to attend — institutions of higher education. The suggestion that the tuition crisis is overblown is downright dangerous, as it gives policymakers and administrators an excuse to avoid addressing the very real problems that students face.