By Wendy Blackmore
If you know me well, you know I am passionate about higher education. Not just about my own path, but about others being given the same opportunity I was given.
Opportunity, for me, began at a very young age. My parents encouraged me to dream, to think big, to be what I wanted to be. My father, having not earned a degree himself, always said, “You will get a degree.” He worked hard and provided to make that possible for my brother and me. My mother set the example. After dropping out of college at 19 to marry my father, she re-enrolled at Mississippi University for Women at age 32. As a mom of two, she managed to study, write papers, prepare meals, wash clothes and earn her bachelor’s degree in microbiology.
The stage was set for me. I had the best possible supports all along my journey. I worked hard and received scholarships, but by no means was it enough to total a “full ride” to one of the public flagship institutions of my home state, Mississippi State University. I was fortunate enough to have parents and grandparents able to pay the remaining costs so I didn’t graduate with thousands of dollars in student loan debt. In college, I thrived because I was well prepared academically, socially and emotionally. I loved learning and I loved the college environment; so much so that I continued on to earn a master’s degree at another public flagship, The University of Alabama. At UA, scholarships and a full-time graduate assistantship helped keep me clear of student loan debt.
Many factors contributed to my success and to getting me where I am today. In addition to those mentioned above, I had peers who shared my dreams and aspirations; I had experienced, brilliant professors at both universities who inspired me, challenged me and believed in me. (I’m looking at you Dr. John Forde, Lora DeFore, Dr. Bruce Berger, and Dr. Lance Kinney.)
And, quite possibly most importantly, I had the good fortune of attending college during the recession of the early 2000s. Allow me to explain.
As states suffer through recessions, policymakers begin looking for places to cut budgets. Higher education almost always ends up on the chopping block, sometimes resulting in dramatic decreases in state funding. As state appropriations to higher education decrease, the percentage of the college’s operating cost the consumer (aka the student) must cover increases to make up the difference. In other words, public colleges re-coup dollars lost from the state by increasing tuition and fees. Students and their families pick up the tab. When the economy took a downturn during my sophomore year of college (2002), the number at the bottom of my tuition bill increased significantly. So why then do I consider it my good fortune to have been in college at that time?
From 2000 to 2004 (my undergraduate years), public institutions in the US increased their reliance on tuition revenue from 29 percent to 34 percent. When the economy recovered, however, tuition reliance didn’t go back down; it remained on a steady incline, and has continued to do so.
Students who entered college in the fall of 2012 were expected to provide 47.4 percent of their colleges’ total educational revenue through tuition and fees.
What does this mean in terms of dollars? Let’s compare my college costs to a 2012 entering freshman’s. In 2003, tuition and fees (keep in mind this does not include room, board, books, etc.) for a full-time, in-state student at Mississippi State University were $3,873. Through gradual increases, by 2012, tuition and fees totaled $6,264. A 2012 freshman paid 62 percent more in tuition and fees than my family did for my senior year of college. From 2008-2013, Mississippi state funding to higher education institutions decreased by 28 percent, resulting in tuition and fees accounting for nearly 40 percent of higher education revenue. And just in case you think I am picking on my home state, Mississippi is not alone. Only three states have increased educational appropriations to higher education in the past five years.
I am fortunate because the recession my family endured pales in comparison to what students and their families face today.
SHEEO’s State Higher Education Finance FY 2013 report calls this the “new normal.”
“In the new normal, retirement and health care costs simultaneously drive up the cost of higher education and compete with education for limited public resources…The new normal expects students and their families to continue to make increasingly greater financial sacrifices in order to complete a postsecondary education. The new normal expects schools and colleges to find ways of increasing productivity and to absorb ever larger budget cuts while increasing degree production without compromising quality.”[i]
Additionally, state and federal aid have not kept up with the rising cost of tuition. In the 1970s, federal and state need-based aid covered up to 80 percent of a student’s cost of attendance to a 4-year public institution. Today, these grants only cover one quarter of the cost.[ii] That is not to say these aid amounts haven’t increased; they have. But providing additional aid and scholarship dollars to students has not slowed tuition increases. SHEEO’s survey on State Tuition, Fees, and Financial Assistance Policies[iii] found that the level of state support is the primary driver of how tuition rates are set each year. So no matter the amount of aid or scholarship dollars states and the federal government provide, the best way to keep the cost down for students and families is to sustain or increase state appropriations to higher education.
I am confident today’s youth share similar dreams and aspirations as I had. After all, in the last five years, full-time enrollment has increased by 10 percent. The environment and the economy they live in are dramatically different than the one I thrived in as a college student. I still want the same opportunities for them despite these differences. Should the burden of our economic downturn fall on their shoulders as they pursue their dreams? Should we accept this as the “new normal?” Can we increase degree attainment in our nation if it is? As higher education leaders across our nation testify:
“One cannot simply ignore either the financial realities outlined in this report or the larger economic challenges facing the American people. Somehow, the nation and its educators must come to grips with these realities and create effective responses to them. Colleges and universities must find ways to reduce the cost of instruction…Parents, students, institutions and states must make tough decisions about priorities – what investments are essential for a better future and where can we and should we reduce spending on non-essentials in order to secure what is essential.”[iv]
So, do we – as parents, as students, as institutions, as states, as a nation – view higher education as essential?
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