Colleges dig deep into pockets of students

CHICAGO – State budget cuts this year are prompting galloping tuition increases at many of the Midwest’s biggest public universities,sharpening concerns over growing student debt and access to higher education for low- and middle-income students.

College leaders argue their tuition hikes result from an economic slowdown and cost increases beyond their control. But some policymakers saw higher education has enjoyed several years of robust funding and it’s now time to bring costs under control.

“Why is there no effective downward pressure on rapidly increasing college costs?” Keith Sanders, who is retiring as the president of the Illinois Board of Higher Education, asked a group of college educators meeting for a College Board hearing in Chicago this month.

“We’re avoiding the prime question — why are college costs going up?”

Driven by deep state budget cuts and a need to stay competitive in research and faculty hires, many key state universities are proposing double-digit percentage increases in tuition for the next school year.

These proposals come on top of big tuition hikes passed last year for four-year public universities, averaging 7.7 percent nationwide and setting the average tuition and fees at $3,754 in 2001-02.

“It’s the No. 1 concern in my life right now,” said Cara Stepanczuk, a senior in Illinois who is considering both selective private schools and state colleges. Stepanczuk is at the top of her class, along with her twin sister, and she has a disabled brother requiring much of her family’s resources. But she doubts that she will qualify for the financial aid she needs.

“I feel that all of my hard work may be for nothing, as my educational future will be dependent on my family’s financial situation,” she said in written testimony before the College Board.

Many students feel overburdened because tuition is pushing up debt. In the last eight years, the average debt among student borrowers has nearly doubled, to $16,928, according to a report released this month by the Higher Education Project of the State Public Interest Research Groups.

Students at the University of Illinois system may face a 10 percent tuition increase, based on a proposal trustees will consider in May.

Ohio State approved an 18 percent increase for new students. Penn State is projecting a 10 to 13 percent tuition hike if the governor’s budget cuts are approved.

The University of Minnesota is looking at a 13.5 percent increase. Michigan State is breaking its eight-year trend of keeping tuition increases below 3 percent, proposing an increase as high as 8.5 percent.

The University of Iowa already approved a 19 percent tuition increase for next year and still faces $38 million in cuts for this fiscal year alone.

Just last week, the University of Missouri system approved an 8 percent increase for its four universities, the highest percentage increase since the mid-1990s.

Facing the largest budget cuts in the system’s history — a potential for $108 million in cuts — the University of Wisconsin system wanted a

tuition increase of at least 9 percent, but the legislature has so far limited that to 8 percent.

The system’s president, Katharine Lyall, said the university system no longer can keep tuition costs down and provide greater access to

students for a high-quality education.

Access is greater

“The actions taken so far suggest we’re trying to have both moderate tuition hikes and high access — at the same time that we’re facing significant cuts in the state budget,” Lyall said. “We either have to turn to tuition or downsize our enrollment. We’re really at a fork in the road.”