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What's Behind The Rise Of College Tuition?


This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin. In an election year dominated by economic issues, spiraling college tuitions are causing concern and getting new attention. Even the cost of attending public colleges and universities, which was once a relatively affordable option for many families, is getting out of reach. As states grapple with budget deficits, many legislatures have made cuts to higher education funding. The result has been larger class sizes, fewer course offerings and higher tuitions. In his State of the Union address last month, President Barack Obama made college affordability a central theme - something he later echoed in a speech at the University of Michigan.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: So, from now on I'm telling Congress we should steer federal campus-based aid to those colleges that keep tuition affordable, provide good value, serve their students well. We are putting colleges on notice.

MARTIN: NPR education correspondent Claudio Sanchez is with us to talk more about this. Hi, Claudio.


MARTIN: So, strong words from the president. We are putting colleges and universities on notice, trying to make them more accountable. What does this mean?

SANCHEZ: It's a threat, Rachel. Colleges and universities right now are either scared or wary of what the president is saying because never before has the pricing of college education and the job that institutions are doing been under greater scrutiny. And Mr. Obama's clearly raising this as an election issue.

MARTIN: So, what are the implications of this? What does this mean in practical terms for schools who have been relying on this funding for a very long time?

SANCHEZ: It means a sea change in the relationship between the federal government and higher education because Mr. Obama's proposing that the for the first time ever federal aid to colleges and universities be tied to institution success in keeping tuition costs down and guaranteeing that students get their money's worth. In other words, the college degrees should mean something. Graduates should be able to find good jobs. The real key thing here though is that a campus-based aid is often controlled by the schools themselves. Under the Obama proposal, it would be the federal government that would have a lot more say, and that, again, say, would be based on the criteria that the administration or the government would use to say you're not doing a good job, or you're fine.

MARTIN: So, Claudio, what's been the response to the president's plan?

SANCHEZ: I don't see colleges saying that they're not concerned about how much they've had to hike tuition, but they blame the states for that. I mean, we now have upwards of 20 states that have really, really seen big cuts in higher education. In New Hampshire, for example, higher education has been cut by, I think, almost 40 percent, California 20 percent. And colleges say we have no choice but to pass this on to students in terms of higher tuition and higher fees.

MARTIN: But do they have a choice? What's the response that you're hearing from students and families themselves? Who are they blaming for these higher tuition costs?

SANCHEZ: I think there's a lot of blame to go around. Congress is often blamed for not raising the amount of money that is available, especially in terms of grants for needy college students. But remember that the anger really is being channeled at the colleges or the institutions themselves because Americans feel that colleges are wasteful, that they're not providing the services that they're paying for.

MARTIN: We've gotten some responses from students at two schools that have seen hefty tuition hikes - students at the University of Nevada at Reno and the University of Washington. Let's take a listen.

DESMONIA COUNTS: College students, we're basically, like, the future. We're the ones who's going to have to pay for everything when everybody else dies. So, I think they should be making it cheaper actually because we're the ones who's going to holding up and sustaining America.

SHAWN TORI: Because of dorm costs, like, all the scholarships that even I had still didn't cover it. So, it was kind of like, wow, like, after all these other scholarships, outside scholarships, and I still don't have enough - and I work three jobs to get by.

CHRISTINA OYINSKI: Student loans and more student loans, pretty much. No financial aid this year, but I'm going to keep trying to for the next couple of years to see if it'll go through.

MARK SLATER: I know a lot of friends, a lot of them older than me who haven't gone to college and they're making fairly good money without really doing the investment of college. So, now it's kind of different how it was back then - everyone should go to college and make a lot more money. It's a lot easier, a lot better to do. Now, today when you're paying almost twice as much in tuition, kind of makes you rethink it a little bit.

MARTIN: Those are students from the University of Washington in Seattle. That was senior Mark Slater and freshman Christina Oyinski(ph). And from the University of Nevada at Reno, we heard from junior Shawn Tori(ph) and sophomore Desmonia Counts(ph). Some disturbing sentiments in there, Claudio. Students say I'm rethinking whether or not this was a good idea even to go to college.

SANCHEZ: Exactly. And you're hearing that even worse examples of people who are in so much debt. This year - and you have to pay attention to this number - this year there's about $227 billion in grants, federal loans, tax credits available in student aid. That's a lot of money. Student loan debt though is now greater than credit card debt. And we've been hearing that students are borrowing at record levels because of spiraling college costs and tighter family budgets that have really squeezed the middle class.

MARTIN: So, what now? How likely is it that the president's plan would get any kind of real backing?

SANCHEZ: Well, in Congress, it's unlikely it'll get very much backing, though as I said before, the president, I think, really has made a decision to use this in his campaign to say, look, the American middle class is being squeezed and I'm their advocate. We're talking about a yearlong debate at the very least.

MARTIN: NPR education correspondent Claudio Sanchez. Claudio, thanks so much.

SANCHEZ: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.