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College students squeezed by rising fees, declining aid

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Sunday, Sept. 4, 2011

One word describes tuition and fees at colleges and universities during the past decade: Up.

A Tribune-Review analysis of tuition and required fees at more than 20 public and private nonprofit colleges and universities in Western Pennsylvania showed increases ranging from 52 percent to 116 percent during a 10-year period, when increases in median household income failed to keep pace with inflation and student debt soared.

Those trends threaten to price higher education out of the reach of a growing number of students, experts say.

Increased costs ranged from a low of 52 percent at tiny Waynesburg University, a private college, to highs of 116 percent at the University of Pittsburgh and Penn State University. The increases outstripped the nation's 27.5 percent inflation rate and a special, higher education inflation index of 36.7 percent during the period.

Patrick Callan, president of the Higher Education Policy Institute, a national nonprofit that studies higher education issues, said the numbers reflect a pattern that has dogged higher education for years.

"Tuition increases, from the early '80s on, have outstripped income and inflation, but what makes this one of the worst decades is income has not been growing. If income had been growing and tuition was rising, it would be one thing. ... I don't think anyone will say you can do this for another decade and have an accessible, affordable system of higher education," Callan said.

Mark Kantrowitz, an author who publishes the FinAid and Fastweb financial aid sites and has testified before Congress, agreed the trends are troubling.

College costs not only are outstripping income gains, they are increasing faster than some of the most basic aid programs, including the PELL program that targets grants to low-income students, Kantrowitz said.

"People's incomes haven't been increasing at the rate tuition is increasing, so college is becoming more unaffordable. The cost is increasing faster than family income and starting salaries for graduates," Kantrowitz said.

That means it will be harder for graduates to repay student loans, which the Institute for College Access and Affordability estimates increased from an average of $16,809 per graduate in Pennsylvania in 2001 to $27,066 in 2009.

Kantrowitz said those estimates might be low, because some colleges don't report graduate debt and the estimates don't include the PLUS loans that parents take out on behalf of students.

Pat McAteer, a sophomore at Pitt's Oakland campus, worries about his loans. Tuition and fees at Pitt increased 8.5 percent this fall to $16,132, after a 19 percent reduction in state subsidies. McAteer said he and many of his friends must borrow more.

"After hearing about state budget cuts, I'm not surprised to see it, but it's definitely a concern to me," McAteer said. "I worry about paying back student loans. ... I know a lot of my friends are from working-class families. We're concerned for ourselves and our families."

Officials at public institutions insist they're trying to control costs, but say they've been disproportionately affected by reductions in state and federal subsidies in recent years. Last spring, public institutions across the country felt the sting as stimulus money expired, and states attempted to deal with declining revenue and rising costs by reducing education subsidies.

In Pennsylvania, where state lawmakers sliced subsidies to higher education, the state Senate will host hearings at four state-related universities -- including one at Pitt on Sept. 12 -- to air student and university concerns.

Public and private nonprofit colleges are concerned that Congress -- which eliminated year-around PELL grants and subsidized graduate school loans this year -- might eat further into student aid programs.

"Right now, higher education is being squeezed on all sides. ...When you see (increases) on a graph it is a little scary. There has been talk about whether we're hitting a tipping point where fewer students will go to college," said Roland King, vice president of public affairs for the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities.

Those concerns resonate with Zack Stayman. A senior, he is president of the Student Government Association at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, where tuition and fees increased nearly 9 percent this fall after lawmakers reduced state support for the 14 universities in the State System of Higher Education by 18 percent.

Stayman said he will graduate debt-free. But for many classmates, Stayman said, increasing costs mean rising debt loads.

"Literally everyone here worries about it. I know people who put off returning to school to avoid taking on more debt," Stayman said.




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