The high cost of a college education and skyrocketing student loan debt are hot topics these days as parents and students struggle to afford bachelor’s degrees that promise higher incomes.
While Alabama does better than most at keeping educational costs and student borrowing in check, representatives from the state’s universities acknowledge the fight to make higher education more accessible to students is ongoing. They describe a college affordability war being fought on multiple fronts.
One major challenge is a reduction in state support for public universities. “State funding of universities across the country took a hit with the 2008-2009 recession, and costs just keep increasing, so limiting tuition increases is challenging for all of us, ” says David Johnson, provost and senior vice president for academic affairs at the University of South Alabama (USA).
The Institute for College Access & Success reports for 2016, the most current year for which statistics are available, the average price for an education at a public college in the United States — including living expenses — was $24, 000. By comparison, the cost of a degree from a public institution in Alabama was $21, 000. Degrees from not-for-profit private colleges averaged $50, 000 nationally and $36, 000 in Alabama.
Like many other Alabama institutions, USA’s board of trustees works diligently to keep tuition and fees in check while keeping the university competitive in its offerings, Johnson says. The university’s board has the goal of capping tuition increases to no more than 3 percent per year. “We have moderated the number of capital improvement projects we’ve taken on since the recession, but you have to provide an appropriate learning environment, ” he says.
Troy University has focused in recent years on reducing costs through “robust right sizing, ” says John Dew, senior vice chancellor of student services and administration at the university. “We have consolidated programs and reduced administrative costs, ” he says. “We continue to review our course offerings to make sure there’s a good return on investment.”
While capital improvements, such as fancy college athletic facilities, have come under fire nationally, universities often seek government funding, booster donations and additional income sources other than tuition for building projects. For example, Shelby Hall, home of USA’s college of engineering and school of computing, benefitted from $40 million in federal funding. And Auburn University’s new recreation and wellness facility was paid for through student activity fees, notes Bill Hardgrave, Auburn’s new provost and vice president for academic affairs.
In addition to reining in tuition costs as best they can, Alabama’s institutions of higher learning seek to help students reduce costs through merit and need-based scholarships, in addition to other types of financial aid. Troy, for example, awards an average of $34 million in scholarships each year. Members of the military and their family members are eligible to attend Troy at a reduced rate. “It’s a major incentive, ” Dew says. “One-fourth of our students are benefitting from the program.”
Community College Options
Dual enrollment coursework for high school students and community college attendance also assist students in earning credit hours while not breaking the bank. Some high school students earn dual enrollment credits online, while others attend college-level classes at their high school or a nearby college.
Because tuition is less expensive at community colleges than at a four-year university and because community college students may be able to live at home, some budget-conscious students opt to attend their first college year or two at a community college. “We embrace dual enrollment and transfer students at Auburn and have a robust transfer network, ” Hardgrave says.
Universities also are using strategies such as career and coursework counseling and financial literacy programs to help students get the most bang from their college dollar, Troy’s Dew says. “We try to assist our students in borrowing the least amount possible, ” he says. “We have an active career center that works with students, and we provide clear ‘degree maps’ that we post online.”
Receiving sound advice and using financial discipline help students more carefully choose their major and coursework, as well keep their living expenses in check. Opting to live on campus vs. an off-campus apartment is one option, says Christine Curtis, provost and executive vice president for academic affairs for the University of Alabama in Huntsville (UAH). Prospective and new students at UAH work with academic and financial affairs advisors to “get and stay on track, ” she says.
Auburn’s “Finish in Four” campaign is being used to help motivate students to finish their degrees in four years rather than lingering longer in college and increasing the total cost for their education. If students don’t earn at least 25 percent of the credit hours required for their major by the end of the spring semester of their first year, the university sends a letter to their permanent address, noting they are falling behind. The letter includes suggestions on how they can catch up on their credits, Hardgrave says.
Since instituting the program, Auburn’s four-year graduation rate has increased from 42 percent in 2013 to 50 percent. “In some cases, students do need to stay longer because of an appropriate change in their major, ” Hardgrave says. “But in general, with proper planning and diligence, we believe most students should be able to graduate in four years.”
UAH has a similar program, with the emphasis on graduating in eight semesters, which generally amounts to four years. Students are encouraged to earn 15 to 16 credit hours each semester so they can get the 120 hours needed to graduate in a timely manner. “When you look at the data, the costs tend to go up significantly after eight semesters, because the availability of federal grants and lower-interest loans go away, ” Curtis says.
When it comes to student debt, the Institute for College Access & Success study reports that in 2016, 59 percent of those who received undergraduate degrees across the country graduated with student loans. That debt averaged $27, 000 for those who attended public universities and $31, 000 for private. By contrast, in Alabama 50 percent graduated with student loan debt the same year, and that debt — no matter whether the school was public or private — averaged $25, 000.
Is that a reasonable debt load for an education? “When you think of the amount of an average student loan, which is in the range of the price of many cars, it’s important to keep in mind that a college education is an investment in your lifelong earning potential, ” Johnson says. “That being said, it’s critical we continue working to help students keep the amount they borrow at a reasonable level. You can dig yourself into a financial hole if you are not careful.”
Another key to the challenge of keeping college affordable is improving Alabama’s primary education system, Johnson says. “K through 12 needs to up its game, ” he says. “When students have to do a great deal of remedial work in college because they didn’t get a good primary education, it costs them more money to get their degree.”
Kathy Hagood and Mike Kittrell are freelance contributors to Business Alabama. She is based in Homewood and he in Mobile.