Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Higher education means higher costs

(Note: A printed version of this story is available in Laredo, Texas in the January 2007 edition of LareDOS. You can read more online at in pdf, too.)


Tenacity and staring into computers for hours could be the most important factors in finding affordable universities.
If the kids aren’t going to stay home and attend local higher education to reduce costs budget-minded parents might hope they eye crossing the Red River into Oklahoma, the Sabine into Louisiana, or have a sudden impulse to go to New Hampshire. New Hampshire state universities lead the nation in affordability with Texas’ border states Oklahoma and Louisiana close behind. Arkansas is consistently ahead of Texas, too.
Texas universities, a good buy in previous decades and magnet for numerous out-of-state students, has slipped to No. 23 in overall affordability in its state schools, according to statistics compiled by the Educational Policy Institute of Washington, D.C. and Toronto, Ontario, Canada.
“The competition is out there and that is what it will come down to,” Adriana Marin, Laredo Community College’s interim student financial aid director, said. “Hopefully though, we will gain more money for our students.”
Research-minded students and parents can begin sizing up potential universities by visiting their Web sites. Many schools have started to include costs through links off the home page.
The difference between those happier more affordable days in Texas universities and today’s nerve-wracking, number crunching hunt for reasonable and acceptable tuition and fees stem from deregulation at the various state capitols. Some state schools are beginning to wonder if they should drop the word state from their names.
“Every year we get less and less from the state. We get less than 25 percent of our money from the state now,” Dorothy Evans, Texas State’s director of alumni relations said in a recent visit to Laredo. “We’re not alone.”
Evans noted that the situation puts increasing importance and stress on fund-raising positions at the university.
Texas State, which changed its name from Southwest Texas State University a few years ago, continues to grow and has seen its enrollment double to 27,500 from its more affordable days in the 1970s. Texas State includes a new Round Rock campus, but the San Marcos-based school had to issue bonds to build there.
Evans said her association wants to build a $15 million alumni center in San Marcos, but the university won’t give them any money for it.
She believes there is some lobbying for higher education in Austin, but not enough.
“John Connally was the last governor that cared about education,” Evans said. “There is lobbying every year, but there is lots of money for the prisons.”
Connally was first elected governor in 1962 and re-elected twice to two more 2-year terms.
“When the State legislature cuts appropriations to colleges and universities there are only a few other sources of revenue available to these institutions and tuition is one of these sources,” Martha Ellis, president of the Association of Texas Colleges and Universities, said in an e-mail from Baytown where she also serves as president of Lee College. “When choices are made to not use public money to support public higher education, the burden will fall on the shoulders of the student.”
Sandy Baum, senior policy analyst for the College Board and professor of economics at Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., says affordability seekers need to eye and research their intended universities carefully, but apply as early as possible to avoid missing any benefits hiding in the background. Baum notes that numerous doors open once accepted.
“Do not just look at the published price,” she said by phone. “The figures might show a school to be a little more cheap, but they might not have more money to help you.
“In Texas, Rice, for example, might the most expensive, but they would have more money to help students.”
Baum re-affirms that community colleges are the bargain, where many students also qualify for financial aid, but being able to attend one depends largely on the region as some states have more 2-year colleges than others. Laredo has Laredo Community College where a 15-hour semester’s total in tuition and fees costs $858. The same number of hours at Laredo’s Texas A&M International University cost $2,339.
Marin understands the financial battle students and parents face both from professional and personal views. She has two college-age children.
“I think it’s gotten out of hand. The cost is going sky high,” Marin said.
Marin says her colleagues around the country are watching state capitols and the new U.S. Congress, hoping for some help.
The U.S. new 110th Congress’ new Democratic-led House of Representatives voted 356-71 on Jan. 17 to cut interest rates on student loans in half to 3.4, passing the bill onto the Senate.
The interest rate cut, if it passes the Senate, will help, but Marin echoes Baum’s call to register as soon as possible, too. There is no substitute for planning.
“If you plan carefully, I think you can succeed and get your 4-year education,” Marin said.
Marin adds that one has to watch out for the difference between desire and reality, pointing toward potential roadblocks like the high cost of a $4,000 semester at the University of Texas against a once a year $4,050 PELL grant.
U.S. Democratic Senators Kennedy and Obama have introduced legislation to raise the PELL grant maximum to $5,100. The $4,050 ceiling has remained the same for four years.
“It doesn’t matter where you go, the thing is to go,” Marin said. “Even if you’re not going to LCC, we help fill out forms for money for college.”
State Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, has been initiating and pushing legislation to encourage students to finish in that desired 4-year time frame, which would save students and universities money.
Last year Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst named her to head Texas’ subcommittee on higher education. Zaffirini holds a doctoral degree and taught at Laredo Junior College before joining the legislature in 1987.
She knows she has some serious challenges to make Texas universities more affordable again.
“I have a passion for higher education,” she said. “In a visit to Texas A&M I discovered that very few were graduating in four years.”
Zaffirini knows there are many whose personal situations don’t allow for a straight 4-year run to finish their bachelor’s degrees, but believes that the majority of college-age students could enroll with a solid degree plan. There would be the inevitable changes to almost all plans, but she sees savings through the more organized pathway to a degree.
Zaffirini has found problems with some university advisors in Texas – sometimes costing students an additional year through poor planning and advice. Zaffirini notes that her son, Carlos Jr., was almost forced to spend an extra year at the University of Texas for one course, but went over an advisor’s head and gained admission to the class.
“She was technically correct and following the rules,” Zaffirini said.
Zaffirini doesn’t believe students should have to do that and wants to see advisors improved through staff development: hoping to head off those upper class dilemmas.
Zaffirini also favors capable high school students taking college courses and testing out of subjects they already know.
“Laredo students could get 16 hours in Spanish,” she said. “For all who grew up in Laredo it could be pretty easy.”
Zaffirini would like to see more incentives for college-bound students to prepare and says higher education would be free if she had absolute say-so, believing college is a right and not a privilege, but the state can’t afford that now, so money has to be used wisely.
Zaffirini is optimistic for affordability in Texas universities, basing part of it on Dewhurst’s interest in higher education.
Laredo’s U.S House Rep. Henry Cuellar carries a serious bent on education, too, as Congress’ most degreed member with five and doesn’t believe students and parents should worry too much if pursuit of an education leads out of town. Cuellar made the unusual transfer from Laredo Junior College to the Ivy League’s Georgetown University in Washington, D.C.
Cuellar credits his time at Georgetown for some of his most important individual development, noting it as probably the best move he made in his academic days. It is uncommon for Ivy League schools to accept junior college transfers, but Cuellar made that transition despite growing up with the same strong family ties many of his constituents have.
Sometimes those ties are too strong to permit the out-of-town transfer as Cuellar witnessed in a recent case of a young girl that could have gone to Georgetown as he did.
“My parents were crying, but after a while they said go ahead,” he said. “Georgetown, to me, was a catalyst in seeking more education – the law degree and PhD.”
Cuellar liked studying with students from 26 other countries and found some of them similar to him in personality, but saw differences, too, as he planned to “work harder than the person next to me” with the goal of getting into law school.
Cuellar got through Georgetown, a catholic university, with two part-time jobs, work study and a small loan of $3,000 – small by most standards, but it was enough to teach him an understanding of what many students go through.
Cuellar notes that college costs have risen by some 41 percent since 2001 and Congress aims to cut student loan interest rates in half, from an average of 6.8 to 3.4, aiming largely toward low middle class income families. The Democratic-led aim is to help students hurdle more financial barriers, giving them a larger choice of schools.
Even if the Senate and President side with the House on lowering student loan interest rates, the overall costs remain high and look to continue rising without more support be it from state or federal sources. The battle rages.
“One thing I can assure you, all presidents are cognizant of the rising cost and are truly working to be efficient in our operations while assuring the quality of our mission--teaching, research, and service,” Ellis said. “We are committed to the importance of an educated workforce for the economic development of our state, be it the operator in the petrochemical industry or the surgeon in the hospital.
“We know that if Texas is to be competitive with other states we must have an educated workforce. Therefore we are attempting to do more with less so that we can continue to close the gaps and educate an additional 500,000 people in the next 10 years. The future of Texas is directly related to quality of our higher education institutions and to having students attend these institutions.”


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