The Costly College Game: How Will Low-Income Students Attain Degrees When Tuitions Continue to Increase and Customary Sources of Financial Aid Remain Stagnant?

By Holsendolph, Ernest | Black Issues in Higher Education, May 5, 2005 | Go to article overview

The Costly College Game: How Will Low-Income Students Attain Degrees When Tuitions Continue to Increase and Customary Sources of Financial Aid Remain Stagnant?


Holsendolph, Ernest, Black Issues in Higher Education


The strong urgings of family, economists and educators have been heard: Students in record numbers have picked up the challenge of higher education and are headed for college. And leading the march through the college gates have been young men and women sometimes notable by their absence--Black, Hispanic and American Indian, and students from low-income families.

University enrollment in the United States is expected to reach 16 million students by 2015, an increase of 2.6 million from 1995 enrollment numbers, according to a report by the Educational Testing Service. Policymakers and manpower experts have hailed this growing college attendance as vital to the nation's future, creating a reservoir of trained and educated participants in the knowledge-based industries that fuel much of today's national and worldwide economic growth. Demographic projections show that--ready or not--women and minorities must provide a larger share of the talent, imagination and energy in the economy of the 21st century.

Behind this good news, however, lies a major bump in the road. In tandem with college attendance, the costs of going to college are growing fast, jumping annually even faster than either inflation or the general cost of living. Latest figures compiled by the College Board, in fact, showed an annual jump of more than 10 percent in the costs of attending four-year public colleges, up $824 to $11,354 a year. The cost of attending private colleges, on average, rose some 6 percent, or $1,459 to $27,516.

In other words, just as many Black and other students of color decide to get into the college game, their overdue good intentions may collide with some unpleasant economic realities. They simply may not be able to afford to stay in college long enough to earn degrees--certainly not in the same numbers as middle-class White students from educated families. College is expensive, and costs are rising rapidly, even as the newest students straggle to make financial ends meet.

Yet as the costs have risen, the customary sources of aid have remained stagnant or worse. The problem, at least among public colleges, is that the upward costs of operation are being offset less by state aid, which has been reducing steadily as a component of college operating revenues. For example, in 1980, state funds accounted on average for half of the revenues flowing to public colleges and universities. In the two decades since then, this amount gradually receded so that by 2000, state appropriations accounted for slightly more than one-third of college revenues.

Among private colleges, with no state-aid cushion, costs of operations fell completely to the bottom line--including the rising cost of many resources, such as energy, technology and health costs.

"In much of the last decade, colleges, like businesses, have had new costs and have been unable to pay for them without raising tuition costs," says Kenneth E. Redd, director of research and policy analysis for the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators (NASFAA). He says that is the reason why the costs to students and parents have risen faster than inflation or the general cost of living.

"A major part of those new costs have included higher employment costs, both in terms of payroll as well as services like health care and retirement benefits," Redd says. Other costs have included greater use of computer technology, including the wiring of residence halls and the creation of networks. "At the same time as these costs have fallen on the colleges and universities, especially since 2001, we have seen cuts in the state appropriations for colleges, mostly because of tighter state budgets. Colleges have had no alternative but to turn to parents for higher tuition payments," Redd adds.

Federal assistance provides no safety net either, as parents walk the higher education financial high wire. The most popular form of federal grant assistance, the Pell Grant, has remained stagnant at about $4,000 a year. …

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