Col­lege af­ford­abil­ity: a shared obli­ga­tion

Baltimore Sun - - COMMENTARY - By Robert L. Caret Robert L. Caret is chan­cel­lor of the Univer­sity Sys­tem of Mary­land. He also has served as pres­i­dent of the Univer­sity of Mas­sachusetts sys­tem, pres­i­dent of San Jose State Univer­sity and pres­i­dent of Tow­son Univer­sity. His email is rcare

As the first mem­ber of my fam­ily to at­tend col­lege, I am very much a prod­uct of af­ford­able higher ed­u­ca­tion. It has also been the fo­cus of my en­tire pro­fes­sional ca­reer. It is grat­i­fy­ing to see the is­sues of ac­cess, af­ford­abil­ity and stu­dent debt given some promi­nence in the po­lit­i­cal arena in this elec­tion sea­son. We also hear the con­cept of free col­lege and — tied to that — ca­reer readi­ness on a reg­u­lar ba­sis. How­ever, mean­ing­ful progress on this front will not be made if pay­ing for higher ed­u­ca­tion is ap­proached as an ex­er­cise in cost shift­ing; rather, higher ed­u­ca­tion must be ap­proached as a shared re­spon­si­bil­ity.

The four en­ti­ties in the higher-ed­u­ca­tion ma­trix — the fed­eral gov­ern­ment, state gov­ern­ments, stu­dents and fam­i­lies, and higher ed­u­ca­tion it­self — must each ac­knowl­edge that just as they share the ben­e­fits as­so­ci­ated with pro­vid­ing af­ford­able and high-qual­ity higher ed­u­ca­tion, they also have an obli­ga­tion to share the costs. Un­for­tu­nately, over the past few decades, the fo­cus has been on pass­ing this re­spon­si­bil­ity up — or down — the line.

The fed­eral gov­ern­ment has long rec­og­nized the value in sup­port­ing high­ere­d­u­ca­tion ac­cess and af­ford­abil­ity. In the early 1970s, the fed­eral Pell Grant pro­gram was a bless­ing for many stu­dents from lowand mod­er­ate-in­come fam­i­lies, cov­er­ing about 80 per­cent of the cost of at­tend­ing a pub­lic four-year univer­sity. To­day a Pell Grant cov­ers less than one-third of those same costs. At the same time, the fed­eral gov­ern­ment now seems to em­pha­size loans over grants, with Fed­eral Pell stand­ing at about $30 bil­lion a year and fed­eral stu­dent loans at about $100 bil­lion a year

If we are to de­velop a true cost-shar­ing part­ner­ship with re­gard to higher ed­u­ca­tion, the fed­eral gov­ern­ment will need to re­bal­ance its ap­proach to fi­nan­cial aid so that grants are pri­or­i­tized over loans, find more fund­ing to bol­ster sup­port for both grants and loans, and lower the stu­dent loan in­ter­est rate.

A sim­i­lar trend has long been un­der­way at the state level as well. In the 1970s, state gov­ern­ments sup­plied pub­lic col­leges and uni­ver­si­ties with nearly 75 per­cent of their ed­u­ca­tion fund­ing. To­day it is closer to 25 per­cent. Ad­justed for in­fla­tion, 46 states are spend­ing less per stu­dent on higher ed­u­ca­tion to­day than be­fore the re­ces­sion hit. As a re­sult, tu­ition has sky­rock­eted in many states, some with tu­ition 75 per­cent higher in 2016 com­pared to 2008. For­tu­nately, my state of Mary­land has fared bet­ter than many other states. Thanks to steady state bud­get sup­port and com­mit­ment to ed­u­ca­tion, Mary­land is one of only four states with a to­tal tu­ition in­crease of less than 10 per­cent since 2008. In ad­di­tion, each year the state of Mary­land awards ap­prox­i­mately $100 mil­lion in need-based grants, schol­ar­ships and loan re­pay­ment pro­grams. These ac­tions, un­for­tu­nately, have not off­set di­rect state fund­ing re­duc­tions.

To reach an eq­ui­table fund­ing part­ner­ship, states must fo­cus on what it ac­tu­ally costs to ed­u­cate a stu­dent, make sure that is a rea­son­able fig­ure and pro­vide a rea­son­able per­cent­age of that cost. In Mas­sachusetts, I worked with the gov­er­nor and leg­is­la­ture to reach a 50/50 split, with the state pro­vid­ing half of what it costs to ed­u­cate a stu­dent and a com­bi­na­tion of fed­eral fund­ing, in­sti­tu­tional fund­ing and tu­ition cov­er­ing the re­main­ing half.

In­sti­tu­tions have an im­por­tant role to play in this lad­der of af­ford­abil­ity as well. The Univer­sity Sys­tem of Mary­land (USM) has re­ceived na­tional recog­ni­tion for our de­lib­er­a­tive ef­forts to pro­mote cost cut­ting, cost con­tain­ment and cost avoid­ance. We have also im­ple­mented ef­fec­tive ap­proaches such as ex­pand­ing the use of AP ex­ams, early col­lege, cam­pus and statewide al­liance agree­ments with com­mu­nity col­leges, re­gional higher ed­u­ca­tion cen­ters where mul­ti­ple USM in­sti­tu­tions of­fer aca­demic pro­grams and other ini­tia­tives de­signed to re­duce costs while im­prov­ing com­ple­tion.

The last and most im­por­tant mem­ber of this part­ner­ship is stu­dents and their fam­i­lies, who must be mind­ful of the true cost of a col­lege ed­u­ca­tion. Look­ing at the av­er­age across the USM, if you fac­tor out room and board, which are costs that stu­dents and fam­i­lies would in­cur re­gard­less, and fac­tor in the fact that 70 per­cent of our stu­dents get some sort of fi­nan­cial aid, you come to a bot­tom line of about $9,000 per year. Is that re­ally too much to pay for a col­lege ed­u­ca­tion? The av­er­age debt at grad­u­a­tion for un­der­grad­u­ate stu­dents who at­tended a four-year pub­lic univer­sity is about $25,500. When you con­sider that 65 per­cent of jobs in Amer­ica will re­quire some type of col­lege de­gree by 2020, that a col­lege grad­u­ate is far less likely to face un­em­ploy­ment and earns far more than an in­di­vid­ual with only a high school di­ploma, and that three-quar­ters of the jobs gained in the U.S. econ­omy since 2008 went to in­di­vid­u­als with a bach­e­lor’s de­gree or higher, we again have to ask if this cost isn’t fairly rea­son­able.

It costs money for our col­leges and uni­ver­si­ties to ed­u­cate, con­duct re­search, op­er­ate, in­no­vate and grow. It costs money to pro­vide a high-qual­ity ed­u­ca­tional ex­pe­ri­ence. The na­tion, the states and the stu­dents them­selves all ben­e­fit. As such, we should be able to estab­lish a clear-eyed un­der­stand­ing through which ad­e­quate fund­ing is pro­vided at all lev­els based on the ideal of shared re­spon­si­bil­ity.

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