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Commentary: Making College Affordable

Members of the college graduating class of 2013 will average more than $35,000 in total debt, according to a study reported recently by CNN. The bulk of the debt is in government loans, but private, state and personal and family loans along with credit card debt contribute to the total. This all-time high in education-related debt comes at a time when interest rate ceilings are being lifted on government loans and when it is getting more and more difficult for graduates to get the high-paying jobs they need to start paying back their loans.

In recent years college has become more expensive. With the Great Recession state legislatures—including the Virginia General Assembly—having reduced appropriations to higher education as a way to balance their budgets. Cutting state monies for colleges and universities was a convenient way for state governments to save money by shifting a greater share of college tuition and fees to parents and students. Virginia’s contribution to its flagship University of Virginia reached an all-time low of about 10 percent of the university’s total budget. At the same time, tuition rates and fees soared. In Virginia, tuition nearly doubled over the past 10 years and rose 7.9 percent last year. Additional funding provided by the General Assembly this year kept increases to an average of 4.1 percent.

According to the State Council of Higher Education in Virginia (SCHEV), the average total charge for an in-state undergraduate student living on campus at a four-year institution has grown from 32.2 percent of per capita disposable income (income available for spending and saving) in 2002 to 45 percent in 2012. Tuition rates have never been higher, and the catch-all “fees” have increased at an even greater rate.

Efforts are underway in several states to make higher education more accessible and affordable. Oregon’s legislature recently approved a committee to develop a pilot program, “Pay it Forward, Pay it Back,” under which students would be able to attend college tuition-free with the agreement that once they were gainfully employed they would pay 3 percent of their future salaries back into a state fund annually for 24 years. A similar proposal is being considered by the University of California called “Fix UC.” Under the plan, graduates would pay 5 percent of their salaries over 20 years. There would be no upfront costs whatsoever. Whether either of these plans is the best solution, or either is even workable, remains to be seen.

In North Carolina, the Carolina Covenant ensures that low-income students get to go to college and graduate debt-free. A financial aid program at the University of Virginia, AccessUVa, is designed to keep higher education affordable for all admitted students regardless of economic circumstances. Such programs need to be expanded and started at other colleges and universities. What is clear is that Virginia must take action to make its colleges and universities more accessible and affordable.