Thursday, September 16, 2004

Nation Gets 'F' in Affordable Colleges

The cost of a college education has risen dramatically in the past few years while wages have stagnanted and inflation, mild as it's been, has eaten up most of what few gains have been made. In real dollars, a lot of us are making less now than we were twenty years ago, making paying for college for our kids a struggle at best, impossible at worst. During the Clinton years, federally-funded or backed financial aid helped close the gap, but in the past three years Bush's tax cuts have forced that money out of the system. The National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education says the result will be to bump less affluent college students out of the system as well.

The report card evaluates states on the performance of their private and public four-year schools and community colleges in five categories, with grades ranging from A to F.

On affordability, the report card contradicts some recent studies that argue increases in financial aid have kept pace with recent tuition hikes, so real college costs have stabilized.

The report card, titled ``Measuring Up 2004,'' grades affordability in part by comparing net college costs with the average family income in each state. By that measure, the study claims, college is becoming less affordable in most states.

In New Hampshire, for instance, college costs amount to 32 percent of average family income compared to 23 percent a decade ago. In New Jersey and Oregon, colleges cost 34 percent of family income, compared to 24 percent and 25 percent, respectively, in 1994.

David Breneman, dean of the Curry School of Education at the University of Virginia and an adviser on the report, said the combination of higher prices and a population boom among college-age people is likely to bump students from four-year colleges to more affordable community colleges, and from community colleges out of the system.

``For at least another five to eight years we're looking at a real denial of opportunity,'' he said.

The report also claims states have made some progress over the last decade preparing students for college, as measured by such factors as the percentage of students taking advanced math and science. In West Virginia, for instance, the percentage of high schoolers taking upper level math and science courses has nearly doubled, and the percentage of eighth graders taking algebra has more than doubled to 25 percent.

But the report notes that higher education, by failing to bring more students into the system, hasn't met its end of the bargain.

``We can no longer attribute all of our college access and quality problems to the failure of public schools,'' said Patrick Callan, the center's president. ``The fact is, high schools have improved over these last 10 years and we haven't seen commensurate higher education gains.''