Lacking State Funds Leaves Students with Doubt and Debt
Year by year, college tuition has been on the rise across the country and the main culprit is a lack of funds for higher education from the state, which leaves students to pick up the rest of the bill and go into debt.
By Jessa Reid Bolling
The steady rise in college tuition is influenced by numerous factors, but none more so than state funding for higher education, where budget cuts and inadequate increases do not keep up with rising tuition costs each year, leaving prospective college students with little aid.
With the lack of state funds, college students are left with few options; try to make a living with only a high school education or take on student loans to afford their tuition and graduate with massive amounts of debt that they could spend decades paying back.
James Purcell, executive director of the Alabama Commission on Higher Education, said that where there are “low levels of state support, there’s always going to be higher tuition.”
“Historically, institutions always felt students completing college was part of the greater good for a community, there was always support,” Purcell said. “When I was in school, tuition was probably $85 a semester. So, there was just enough money for a student to have skin in the game and nowadays, it’s a lot more than skin, there’s an arm and a leg that families and students have to take.”
Purcell said that the commission has not received word on the status of the “65 by 2025” executive order signed last month by former Alabama governor Robert Bentley, intended to increase the percentage of Alabama residents with some form of post-secondary education to 65 percent by 2025, or if Governor Kay Ivey plans to enforce that order.
“The National Bureau of Labor Statistics tells us that your jobs will match what the skillsets of your communities are, so we definitely have to ratchet up if we’re going to maintain what they project is possible for us (by 2025),” Purcell said. “They’ve given us a roadmap, they’ve told us what we need to do. All we have to do is just get on the ball and stay focused.”
Before his appointment in Alabama, Purcell served as commissioner of the Office of Postsecondary Education in Rhode Island, where Governor Gina Raimondo has proposed a policy that would offer residents two years of public college tuition free. He said that such initiatives may continue to spread across the country.
“Now, with such high technology and skill levels required for most jobs, a lot of people are thinking that we need an additional two years in common education for all people to be productive in the modern economy,” Purcell said. “That’s why a lot of states are going that way and even in the South, you have states that have been doing that.”
Kate Derrick, the director of external relations at the Tennessee Higher Education Commission, said that since the Tennessee Promise has been in place, college enrollment has increased and students have borrowed fewer loans. Tennessee Promise is a scholarship that gives Tennessee residents two years of tuition-free community or technical college.
“We do have some initial successes that we’ve seen in terms of enrollment in college and one thing that we have seen is a decrease in the number of loan originations in the state between when Tennessee Promise started and before it started,” Derrick said. “We have seen that fewer students are taking out loans which is good because that’s less for those students to pay back so there’s more economic opportunities for those students.”
Derrick said that other states have started to take on a similar model to the Tennessee Promise and cautioned that legislators need to create a model that will best suit their state’s needs.
“We had a revenue model for Tennessee Promise which was funded through the Tennessee Education Lottery Scholarship, so our state lottery funds Tennessee Promise,” Derrick said. “Other states are funding it through recurring funds from the legislature so that means that as the state’s tax revenue goes up or goes down, so does potentially funding for those programs.”
Sara Garcia, research associate on the postsecondary education team at the Center for American Progress, said that states have severely disinvested in their higher education programs and that this contributed to the over $1 trillion owed in federal student loans.
“I would definitely say state disinvestment is one of the biggest factors for rising tuition costs,” Garcia said. “Since the 50s, federal and state governments have sort of partnered and shared the cost of college education for citizens, but states have traditionally been a really big source of direct funding for public colleges and universities and so as that has diminished over time, college costs have risen and students have needed to borrow more and more to attend college. Lawmakers have to understand that when you cut investments into higher education, it is students and tax payers who carry the brunt of the cost.”
Garcia said that some legislators could take advantage of loan programs and cut higher education funds with the knowledge that students can still attend college if they take out student loans.
“I think having the federal student loan market there is sort of appealing for certain law makers because students can borrow to go to college but it’s definitely not a solution,” Garcia said. “Student debt is a huge problem and the more debt students take on, the harder it is to repay.”
Garcia said that higher education should be considered a “public good” and that federal and state investments should help take on the weight of tuition costs off of family budgets.
“The higher education system is not a market,” Garcia said. “It’s supposed to be a pathway to opportunity and it’s imperative that we ensure that it’s a continued pathway into the middle class for all students and that should be the main goal of higher education.”