Tuesday, March 5, 2013

The Cost of College

The most important indicator of regional economic success is the number of residents who have completed a college degree or certificate.  The problem is that the economic payoff from college occurs after completion of the program, so the costs precede the benefit.  And the costs are substantial. Tuition and fees at Washington Community and Technical Colleges have risen by 50% over the past five years.[1] The average cost of tuition, books, fees and the cost of living[2] for community and technical college students in Washington State is $17,044.[3] Even low income independent students actually receiving Pell Grants and the State Need Grants face an average unmet need of $6,400 per year.[4] This imposes an unsustainable burden on low-income and low middle income students. 

Perhaps most importantly, eligibility for Pell Grants, low interest Stafford Loans and the Washington State Need Grant is limited to families with incomes of under roughly $40,000. For example, a grocery clerk with a child earning $45,000 per year would be ineligible for aid.  Lost earnings for attending college as well as other college costs would take up over 40% of the family’s income. 

The obvious solution would be to expand traditional financial aid programs, which have failed to keep up with the soaring cost of college. The proportion of college costs covered by Pell Grants has fallen dramatically over the past 30 years, and now cover the lowest portion of costs in history.  In the state of Washington, budget cuts to the State Need Grant have left 32,000 students, or 30% of the eligible students, without aid.  And as a result of federal budget cuts in 2011, Federal Pell Grants no longer cover summer programs. [5]

Unfortunately, both state and federal budgets are shrinking and Washington voters show little interest in making college more affordable. 

There needs to be a creative way out of this box. Some kind of creative loan package might work. However, many working adults have little history or understanding of personal finance and borrowing.  Students fear indebtedness in a time of high unemployment and mortgage foreclosures. Many colleges have not offered federal students loans because of penalties related to the high default rate.  Private loans are only offered at very high interests, if at all, for lower income working adults.  

[1] Washington Higher Education Coordinating Board, 2012, Key Facts About Higher Education in Washington.
[2] The cost of living is included in this figure since students who work more than half time are unlikely to complete programs. Program completion requires students to forgo earnings to attend college.
[3]  Scott Copeland, State Board for Community and Technical Colleges, July 9, 2012; Higher Education Coordinating Board, January 2004,  Key facts about higher education in Washington (adjusted for inflation)
[4] Washington State Higher Education Loan Program Work Group, December 2012, Higher Education Loan Program Legislative Report
[5] Washington State Higher Education Coordinating Board, January 2012, Access, Affordability, Achievement: Annual Report on State Financial Aid Programs 

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