College costs walloping wallets

Tuition, fees at Texas' universities more than double '93 level

By TODD ACKERMAN
Copyright 2003 Houston Chronicle
October 22, 2003

The cost of college has skyrocketed in the past decade, increasing most at public universities and in the Southwest, which includes Texas, according to a study the College Board released Tuesday.

The study found tuition and fees at four-year public schools in 2003-2004 was 14 percent more than a year ago and 47 percent more than a decade ago. The increases were significantly higher in the Southwest than the Northeast, Mid-Atlantic and Midwest, the regions with the highest tuition and fees historically.

"We are in the middle of a very difficult period in financing higher education," David Ward, president of the American Council on Education, said in a statement. "I remain greatly concerned about the long-term viability of the social compact that has served students and families so well for more than 50 years."

The study did not break down tuition and fees by state, but Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board officials said Tuesday the cost at Texas public four-year universities has more than doubled in the past decade -- it's risen 103.5 percent when adjusted for inflation. And the greatest increase will come next year, when Texas universities begin exercising the carte blanche the 2003 Legislature gave them to set tuition.

Already, in the past decade, the University of Texas-Austin's tuition and fees are up 130 percent, Texas A&M's 111 percent, Texas Southern University's 132 percent and the University of Houston's 96 percent.

Texas officials downplayed the increase, saying it's a reflection of the state's historically low tuition.

"Our percentage is high, but we haven't gone up any more dollarwise," said Teri Flack, deputy commissioner for the Coordinating Board. "That just says other states were higher to begin with. We're just now in the middle of pack compared to other states where tuition is concerned."

But at UH, that seemed little solace to many students interviewed. They said the increases are causing them to work longer hours and take out loans. Some worried that they might have to drop out.

"My parents are paying my tuition and they're pretty much stretched to the max, with my tuition and my books," said Andrew Gafford, a sophomore who estimated his tuition and fees have gone from $1,500 to $2,400 since he started. "If it keeps going up, I'm not going to be able to afford it."

The College Board annual report attributed much of the cost increase at public universities to less support from state government. Almost every state legislature gave higher education less funding in the past two years.

But the cost of college rose significantly at private schools, too. Average tuition and fees at private college and universities grew by 42 percent between 1993 and 2003. (Both private and public school tuition increase figures reflect inflation-adjusted dollars.)

Rice's tuition and fees, for instance, went up 60.4 percent in the past decade, from $4,825 a semester to $9,835.

Sandy Baum, an economics professor at New York's Skidmore College and a co-author of the report, said a second factor driving up tuition among both public and private schools is increasing costs of college beyond inflation -- mostly, new technology and health insurance for faculty and staff.

Ann Wright, Rice's vice president for enrollment, said the stock market's decline also has been a factor, shrinking university endowments. She emphasized that Rice's average rate of increase per year -- 4.8 percent -- is "very cost-conscious."

In addition, the report said the picture is not as bad as it might look because of financial aid. A record amount was distributed in 2002-2003 -- $105 billion, or $13 billion more than the previous year.

Sixty percent of undergraduates are using financial aid packages to help pay for college. Total aid per full-time equivalent student averages about $9,100.

But student aid is more likely to take the form of loans rather than grants, and the aid is increasingly going to wealthier students, the report said. Poorer families pay up to 71 percent of their income for higher education.

National experts gave the same reason as Texas officials did for why tuition in the Southwest increased more than other regions: its historically low base. For a full year, tuition and fees for four-year public schools in the West, Southwest and South average between $3,737 and $3,758 in 2003, whereas the averages are $5,507 in the Midwest, $6,035 in New England and $6,350 in the Mid-Atlantic states.

The College Board, a nonprofit that owns the SAT, reported that for a full year, tuition and fees this fall average $4,694, up $578, at public four-year schools; $1,905, up $231, or 13.9 percent from last year, at public two-year colleges; and $19,710, up $1,114, or 6 percent, at private four-year colleges.

While some students at UH worried that tuition hardships ultimately might prove too onerous, one resolved that she'd find a way to stay in school.

"It's getting outrageous," said Chelsea Curtley, a second-year freshman. "I had to drop some classes because I couldn't afford them. But no amount of money will keep me out of school. Nowadays, you must have a college degree to get anywhere."

Robert Lopez of the Chronicle staff contributed to this story.