Higher Cost of Higher Ed

Students shop for bargains

Nothing brings home the rising cost of higher education like seeing a college tuition invoice. You open the bill and there it is in black and white – tuition, fees, more fees.

One reason why paying for college has become more painful is the fact that public financial support for higher education has waned as pressures on government budgets have grown.

Online publisher Inside Higher Ed reports that some of the largest college tuition increases in the country have occurred at public universities in cash-strapped states. Pennsylvania State University is now the nation’s most expensive four-year public college or university, with tuition and fees set at $14,416 for in-state residents.

While that doesn’t come close to the $51,000 bill students face at Bates College in Maine – the country’s highest-cost private four-year institution – the difference is cold comfort to a kid who can’t afford either one.

Several years ago Congress passed a measure that provides some help for college-bound kids. It doesn’t provide any direct financial aid, but it does offer a means of ensuring that students get as much bang as possible for their bucks.

The measure passed by Congress in 2008 mandated the creation of a College Affordability and Transparency Center, which organizes college cost information in ways that enable meaningful comparisons among institutions.

The online center – CollegeCost.ed.gov – has more than 50 detailed lists that group institutions in nine categories.

Within each category college shoppers can find such information as the most- and least-expensive schools and colleges with the fastest-rising sticker price.

Several Louisiana colleges made the Education Department’s lists. Tulane University, with a 2008-’09 tuition of $40,584, ranked among the priciest private, nonprofit schools.

For affordability, Our Lady of Holy Cross College appears hard to beat. With tuition at $7,755, the Algiers school ranked among the country’s least expensive private, nonprofit colleges.

Southern University at New Orleans was among the least costly public, nonprofit colleges, with tuition at $3,072.

Meanwhile, the University of New Orleans showed up in the category of public, four-year colleges with the lowest average “net price.” Researchers arrive at the figure by subtracting the average amount of federal, state or institutional aid from the total cost of attendance. The average net price for a full-time beginning undergraduate student at UNO was $6,359 in 2008-’09. That is compared to a national average of $10,747.

UNO spokesman Adam Norris considers the ranking an affirmation of the university’s efforts to combine academic rigor with affordability. “We think that UNO provides students with an excellent value, and it’s not simply a matter of low cost,” he says.

Norris says the university has become known not only for the depth and range of programs it offers, but also for the research services it provides in the community. Local economic data regularly compiled by the Institute for Economic Development and Real Estate Research, for instance, is a staple among New Orleans businesses and business organizations.

“When you combine our academic offerings and the fact that we do groundbreaking research, and you look at that price tag, UNO offers a lot of value for the money,” he says.

Norris says university administrators recognize that the national trend among public institutions is toward finding ways to survive with diminished state support.

UNO currently receives slightly more than 40 percent of its revenue from the state.

“It’s incumbent on universities to do what they can to be more self-sufficient,” he says. “Our job is to bring in as many well-qualified students as possible and make sure that we graduate them on time.” He says six years has become the norm for students to complete an undergraduate program and graduate.

Earlier this year the Louisiana Board of Regents, which has authority over all of the state’s public institutions of higher learning, rankled some observers by announcing that more than 100 college programs would be discontinued or folded into other programs during the next few years.

Karen Denby, the board’s associate commissioner for academic affairs, says reaction to the announcement was overblown. The aim of the program cuts was not so much about cutting costs as increasing efficiency, she says. Too many college programs produce very few graduates and are consuming valuable faculty time that might be better spent in programs more students need, she says.

“We’ve developed a process to look at graduation rates every year to make sure that campuses don’t become complacent or comfortable in dragging along old programs that maybe should be revised or eliminated,” she says.

Denby says an important result is that the process “clears the way for new program development.” For example, proposals now under consideration by public universities include graduate programs in coastal and ecological engineering. UNO, she notes, has proposed to develop a bachelor’s degree in transportation studies.

Walter Lane, who chairs UNO’s department of economics and finance, says none of the program cuts announced by the regents pose problems for the school. He says most university personnel were more concerned about whether UNO would be allowed to separate from the Louisiana State University System and join the University of Louisiana system instead.

Now that the Legislature has enabled that switch, “things are looking much more stable around here,” he says.

The general feeling is that UNO will fare better in the new situation in terms of both academics and responsiveness to student needs. “Morale,” Lane says, “is really looking up right now.”
 

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