Consistent reports chronicling the rising cost of higher education may be overstated, according to a report issued yesterday by the Presidents Council of the State Universities of Michigan.

To the students who work for hours just to pay tuition, this may seem false and shortsighted. But the council, after commissioning a higher education finance expert, found that over the past five years, college has become cheaper for families.

Students have been paying less because financial aid has increased. Federal, state and campus-based aid — in the form of grants, scholarships and tuition tax credits — have been increasing faster than tuition and fees, according to the report.

“We want the citizens of Michigan to know that affordability for college should not be a barrier to pursuing a higher education,” said Michael Boulus, who is executive director of the Presidents Council, a nonprofit higher education association representing all 15 state universities.

Students enrolled at a public university in the state on average pay 45 percent of tuition and mandatory fees, compared to 60 percent in 1998, the council reported. The average cost of a public higher education was $358 less in 2003 than in 1998.

Students at the University pay significantly more in tuition and fees than students across the country. Nationally, the majority of students have less than $6,000 in tuition and fees.

But University students also receive much more aid than students in the rest of the state, the report states. Last academic year, undergraduates who received aid got an average of $12,495, including loans and work-study.

At the University, the amount of aid received by in-state students has also increased by about $1,200 per person since 1996.

Financial aid has been increasing for students at the University for at least the last seven years. The largest growth has been in the forms of loans and grants, which include all scholarships offered by the University.

“Our financial aid packages cover the full financial need of Michigan resident undergraduates, through a combination of grants, loans and work-study.  Over the past decade we have increased the institutional funds committed to financial aid grants and scholarships at a rate equal to or greater than the rate of increase in tuition,” University spokeswoman Julie Peterson said in a statement.

The financial aid provided by any school is the major source of funding for students and has been outpacing federal and state aid, Boulus added. But tax credits, especially recent federal tax credits aimed at the middle class, have also become a substantial source of funding.

Despite the increase in financial aid, Boulus echoed the cries of other university administrators by criticizing the state for under-funding public universities over the past couple years.

“There’s a relationship to state support for universities and tuition,” Boulus said. Over the past two years, the University weathered a $43 million budget cut — money it will never get back. The cut was several times more than any cut the University received in the past 40 years. State funding comprises roughly 30 percent of the general budget.

Administrators argue that when the state levies cuts, they are forced to raise tuition. The costs of running a University are continually increasing, fuelled by rising enrollment and infrastructure costs and a need to stay competitive, administrators as high up as President Mary Sue Coleman say.

The state budget situation places significant pressure on tuition costs, they say. Gov. Jennifer Granholm cut a deal with universities for this year, asking them to hold tuition to the rate of inflation in return for a partial restoration of funding. But school leaders, including Coleman, say that this is not a “sustainable model.” Eventually, she argued, the University would have to raise tuition to keep up with the school’s growth.

“How does the University of Michigan become more competitive, retain high standards of quality, educate more students and strive to stay affordable without more state support?” Boulus asked.

A few non-profit groups have criticized such studies that report a decrease in college costs. Groups like the American Council on Education argue that the studies dissuade universities and government from providing more aid. But this report indicates that aid should continue to increase, Boulus said.

“College is still a financial burden. You still must save and you still must invest,” he said.

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