College Students Squeezed by Rising Fees, Declining Aid

By Erdley, Debra | Tribune-Review/Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, September 4, 2011 | Go to article overview
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College Students Squeezed by Rising Fees, Declining Aid


Erdley, Debra, Tribune-Review/Pittsburgh Tribune-Review


One word describes tuition and fees at colleges and universities during the past decade: Up.

A Tribune-Review analysis of tuition and required fees at more than 20 public and private nonprofit colleges and universities in Western Pennsylvania showed increases ranging from 52 percent to 116 percent during a 10-year period, when increases in median household income failed to keep pace with inflation and student debt soared.

Those trends threaten to price higher education out of the reach of a growing number of students, experts say.

Increased costs ranged from a low of 52 percent at tiny Waynesburg University, a private college, to highs of 116 percent at the University of Pittsburgh and Penn State University. The increases outstripped the nation's 27.5 percent inflation rate and a special, higher education inflation index of 36.7 percent during the period.

Patrick Callan, president of the Higher Education Policy Institute, a national nonprofit that studies higher education issues, said the numbers reflect a pattern that has dogged higher education for years.

"Tuition increases, from the early '80s on, have outstripped income and inflation, but what makes this one of the worst decades is income has not been growing. If income had been growing and tuition was rising, it would be one thing. ... I don't think anyone will say you can do this for another decade and have an accessible, affordable system of higher education," Callan said.

Mark Kantrowitz, an author who publishes the FinAid and Fastweb financial aid sites and has testified before Congress, agreed the trends are troubling.

College costs not only are outstripping income gains, they are increasing faster than some of the most basic aid programs, including the PELL program that targets grants to low-income students, Kantrowitz said.

"People's incomes haven't been increasing at the rate tuition is increasing, so college is becoming more unaffordable. The cost is increasing faster than family income and starting salaries for graduates," Kantrowitz said.

That means it will be harder for graduates to repay student loans, which the Institute for College Access and Affordability estimates increased from an average of $16,809 per graduate in Pennsylvania in 2001 to $27,066 in 2009.

Kantrowitz said those estimates might be low, because some colleges don't report graduate debt and the estimates don't include the PLUS loans that parents take out on behalf of students.

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