State News

Study: N.C. flunks in college affordability

Posted December 3, 2008

An independent report on American higher education flunks all but one state when it comes to affordability – an embarrassing verdict that is unlikely to improve as the economy contracts.

The biennial study by the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education, which evaluates how well higher education is serving the public, handed out F's for affordability to 49 states, up from 43 two years ago. Only California received a passing grade in the category, a C, thanks to its relatively inexpensive community colleges.

The report card uses a range of measurements to give states grades, from A to F, on the performance of their public and private colleges. The affordability grade is based on how much of the average family's income it costs to go to college.

North Carolina scored a B-minus for preparation – a measure of how well high school prepares students to succeed in college – a D-plus for college participation and a C-plus in a category that measures benefits from higher education.

Almost everywhere, costs are up, according to the survey. Only two states – New York and Tennessee – have made even minimal improvements since 2000, but they're still considered to be failing. Everywhere else, families must fork over a greater percentage of their income to pay for college. In Illinois, the average cost attending a public four-year college has jumped from 19 percent of family's income in 1999-2000 to 35 percent in 2007-2008, and in Pennsylvania, from 29 percent to 41 percent.

Low-income families have been hardest hit. Nationally, enrollment at a local public college costs families in the top fifth of income just 9 percent of their earnings, while families from the bottom fifth pay 55 percent, up from 39 percent in 1999-2000.

What's more, that's after accounting for financial aid, which is increasingly being used to lure high-achieving students who boost a school's reputation, but who don't need help to go to college.

The problem seems likely to worsen as the economy does, said Patrick Callan, the center's president.

Historically during downturns, "States make disproportionate cuts in higher education and, in return for the colleges taking them gracefully, allow them to raise tuition," Callan said. "If we handle this recession like we've handled others, we will see that this gets worse."

Scott Cristal of Columbia, Mo., said he wasn't surprised by the study's findings. Cristal, who has sent two daughters to college and has another two yet to pay for, said that he is trying to expand his business to help pay the tuition bills, but that it's been hard because of the slowing economy.

"We're going to play it by ear, be optimistic, hope for the best and just ride it out as best we can," Cristal said. "I think that's what everybody in America's doing right now."

States fared modestly better in other categories such as participation, where no state failed and about half the states earned A's or B's, comparable to the report two years ago. One reason for the uptick is that more students are taking rigorous college-prep courses, the study found. In Texas, for instance, the percentage of high schoolers taking at least one upper-level science course has nearly tripled from 20 percent to 56 percent.

But better preparation for college hasn't translated into better enrollment or completion, with only two states, Arizona and Iowa, receiving an A for participation in higher education.

And the discrepancy in enrollment between states is still great: Forty-four percent of young Iowans are in college, while just 18 percent of their counterparts in Alaska, one of three states to get an F in the category, are enrolled.

Callan said the United States is at best standing still while other countries pass it in areas like college enrollment and completion. And as higher education fails to keep up with population growth, the specter lurks of new generations less educated than their Baby Boomer predecessors.

"The educational strength of the American population is in the group that's about to retire," Callan said. "In the rest of the world it's the group that's gone to college since 1990."


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  • DontLikeTheSocialistObama Dec 3, 2008

    Take away Ms. Easley's pay increase.

    That would reduce the cost of a college education for several students.

  • haggis basher Dec 3, 2008

    "how can the college justify paying for them to PRETEND to go to school and the college just throw away 2 MILLION dollars a year in tuitions lost to useless scholarships."
    I suspect that filling Carter Findley stadium and the RBC centre on a regular basis more pays for any scholarships the players get.

  • chfdcpt Dec 3, 2008

    Seopro, remember that college sports is a multi million dollar industry to the colleges. They get tv fees for local stations. If they go to the regional playoffs, that is a higher fee. If they make it to the nationals, the fee they get is even higher.

    It has nothing to do with the kids, but we the taxpayers still allow it to happen.

  • SEOpro Dec 3, 2008

    "We should stop pretending that athletes are going to college to get an education."

    Why should WE pretend. THEY should stop pretending to go to college and let the college give that scholarship money to my son that is actually going to college to learn something.

    Most atheletes are on a full scholarship - yet again riding on the backs of middle, average America, having their wallets forced open for the ELITE.

    I'm seeing that we pay $10,000 a year cash money for our son to go to school. Not even a loan. So, since I know there are well over 200 athletes in a campus of almost 30,000 student that are on scholarships with free room/board - how can the college justify paying for them to PRETEND to go to school and the college just throw away 2 MILLION dollars a year in tuitions lost to useless scholarships. It's okay for athletes to use the college system to further their own careers that have nothing to do with academics - and we have to pay for them too? Please...

  • Lone Voice in the Wilderness Dec 3, 2008

    When I went to UNCW, and from what I hear is still the case today, our campus was filled with students from New Jersey & Pennsylvania. Why? Our college costs even for out-of-state students were more affordable than their in-state costs.

    I would like to see this study & wonder what the criteria were to make such a determination.

  • CuriousT Dec 3, 2008

    I'm trying to figure out what my "Activity Fee" is paying for when I'm an online student? None of the campus activities apply to me.

  • missdawg Dec 3, 2008

    I think that schools need to put more emphasis on distance education to bring down their costs. More students can enroll in a college without having to add any new classrooms, dorms, etc.

  • djofraleigh Dec 3, 2008

    In the NC system, if the tuition were separate from the student fees, letting the fees be a la carte, or optional, then the costs would go down. Also, requiring students to eat and sleep on campus as freshmen should become optional. Books are a racket as done, with the campus bookstores being too profitable for the colleges, and too expensive for the students. If tuition alone was the expense, then the rest would be a breeze in the private sector.

  • chfdcpt Dec 3, 2008

    I guess that our governor being the "Edukashin Gubernor" of the year by the NEA did not help our college system.

  • yellow_hat Dec 3, 2008

    One way to save some coin is to expect college professors to actually teach students! I know that is really radical, but necessary. Colleges have become grant prostitutes and professors just want to research, so they can take "their" inventions or discoveries priviate & make a mint. Research is fine, but funding that is what venture capitalists are for. Some professors teach only one or two classes per week, some less than that.