The University of Washington and the University of Wisconsin-Madison share more than initials; both universities and their students are struggling with the rising costs of education and its impact on the quality of education.
MILWAUKEE — This Sunday, the Foster School of Business graduation ceremony marked the end of Cheney Ferrell’s four years at the UW. And although she has worked 20 hours a week since the beginning of her sophomore year of college to make ends meet, Sunday’s graduation also triggered the six-month countdown until she starts paying back about $15,000 in loans.
For another UW student — a University of Wisconsin-Madison student — graduation might mean the same thing in a few years. Jensen Trotter just finished up his sophomore year at UW-Madison and is looking for another job, since his and 18 other positions at the campus’ Multicultural Student Coalition were recently cut. Although he hasn’t taken out much money in loans so far, thanks to a small amount of federal aid and savings from his parents, Trotter knows the financial responsiblity that comes with getting a college degree.
“I would like to be working a full work week or more — 40 hours at least, but I would hope for 50,” Trotter said.
For both of these students, and tens of thousands of others across the country, getting a college education comes at a high price. Since 2001, the cost of attending a four-year, public university has increased 6.5% every year, and, if the pattern continues, by 2016 the price will be more than double what it was in 2001. Because of these increases, the average student borrower now has $23,300 in student loans, according to a New York Times article last month.
The cost for Ferrell and Trotter to attend their respective universities during the 2011-2012 school year exceeded the average $20,100 cost of a public, four-year institution. It cost $24,059 for Ferrell to attend the University of Washington, and about $1,500 less for Trotter to cover the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s $22,542 price tag. But beyond the student loans and additional jobs that they both experienced, growing college costs are also leading to nationwide jumps in tuition, decreases in students services, and the struggles that students like Ferrell and Trotter have to face.
According to Richard Vedder, director of the Center for College Affordability and Productivity, these drastic cuts to education have driven our universities to a crisis point. It won’t be long, he said, before the nation sees severe changes within its higher education institutions.
“The universities, out of desperation, are going to start having to do things differently,” he said.
The University of Wisconsin system, with 26 locations across the Midwestern state, and the University of Washington are only two examples of what is happening to our nation’s colleges and universities.
Buildup to budget cuts
Current college students know the routine all too well. Whenever the tuition statement comes at the beginning of the quarter, mom and dad always feel the need to share how much cheaper it was to go to school back in their day — something that inspires equal amounts of jealousy and frustration.
For my dad, tuition was $687 a year when he graduated from the University of Washington in 1979 with a degree in forest resources — that’s only 7% of the $10,346 in tuition and fees that I am paying this year for a journalism degree at the same school. And even though $687 was a lot more back then than it is today, it was still a cheap price to pay for a college degree.
When my dad graduated in 1979, the median annual household income in Washington state was about $18,500, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. In comparison, the cost of his education at the University of Washington made up only 3.7% of that income. In 2011, the median family income was $55,500, of which UW’s tuition would consume an astounding 18.5%.
According to Greg Diemer, the Vice Chancellor of Business Affairs at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point, these increasingly disproportional costs can be traced back to the late 1980s and early 1990s.
Diemer has had his eye on changes in state aid to higher education since 1970, when state funding covered about 65% of higher education costs in Wisconsin and tuition made up the other 35%. Now, he said, those numbers have reversed, with tuition paying for a little more than 60% of college costs. He said that this change is a result of Wisconsin’s state legislature having to meet the costs of other mandates, like growing the prison system and providing two-thirds funding for K-12 education — which leaves the state to look for another source of funding for higher education.
“The university system unfortunately has another source of income, and that is the families and students who are paying tuition,” Diemer said.
Recently, the University of Washington has answered budget issues the same way, according to Norm Arkans, the Associate Vice President for Media Relations and Communications at the University of Washington. Arkans said that when the legislature cut 50% of the University of Washington’s state funding during the 2011-2013 biennium, providing only $200 million every year instead of $400 million, they did so knowing that tuition could help fill in the gaps.
“The only way the legislature could feel in good conscience that they could cut our budget in half — and remember they were trying to solve a huge, statewide budget hole — the only reason they could do it that way is because they knew that there would be additional tuition money coming in to help out,” Arkans said.
This transition from state-based to tuition-based funding may be making higher education increasingly less accessible, and less valuable, to young people across the nation.
Future of higher education
Matt Guidry, the Communications Director for the United Council of University of Wisconsin Students, said that, although higher education is surviving through these hefty budget cuts, quality is paying the price.
“Everyone cutting was like, ‘Oh, you’ll survive, you’ll survive.’ And then we kind of took it, as students and as council, as, ‘We know we’ll survive, but you’re really hurting the quality, as well as hurting the accessibility,’” Guidry said.
Arkans, from the University of Washington, described how decreasing budgets translate in the academic setting — leading to cuts in teaching assistantship positions, larger class sizes, fewer class offerings each quarter and cuts to advising resources.
Many higher education institutions, like the University of Wisconsin system, Guidry said, use a high tuition, high financial aid model to help limit these cuts. But high tuition, high financial aid assumes that students who need assistance will receive it — those who don’t receive financial aid are left to face a long-term struggle.
“Something that we want to avoid is high tuition, high financial aid because of its lack of accessibility. Basically, if you don’t happen to qualify for financial aid, or the financial aid isn’t there, you’re toast,” Guidry said.
Ferrell, who we met earlier, is an example of how college administrators shouldn’t assume that financial aid will take care of the weight of high tuition costs. Ferrell received grants to help pay for her first year of college at the University of Washington, but over the next three years, she was left trying to balance a demanding academic curriculum with a part-time job.
“I would get up at 5:30 on work days to get a long enough work shift in to make enough money. But always being at work, when I have midterms and finals — that just polluted my mind. It was definitely a juggling act,” she said.
Looking forward to the future of higher education institutions, Vedder said that people who are considering a college degree should be optimistic, but guarded.
“Too many kids are finding the ratio of their debt to their income awfully high. So it is a risky proposition going to college. It’s probably a worthwhile proposition, but still, people should have much more caution and be careful, and be a little less willing to borrow up the kazoo,” he said.
But it’s not only students who should be skeptical about where higher education is headed. According to Vedder, once colleges and universities wake up to the crises they are in, the nation will see them making a series of interesting innovations to cut costs.
Among his predictions, Vedder said that higher education institutions will privatize their housing and food services, medical centers will financially separate from their affiliated schools, and many university libraries, which he says spend millions of dollars on books and journals every year, will disappear. One innovation that many schools already embrace is opening admissions to more out-of-state students — something that Vedder says causes its fair share of political tensions.
Overall, Vedder said that the consistent increase to the cost of getting a college degree cannot continue on this upward climb. Before long, although he isn’t sure exactly how it will happen, something big has to change.
“The general trend is for tuition fees and room and board charges to rise faster than people’s income,” Vedder said. “That is a trend that is not sustainable forever. Otherwise, the entire nation’s income will be going to send one kid to school. Obviously, somewhere along the lines, something’s got to give. I think it is just a question of when and where and how much. But it’s going to happen.”