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Americans worried by soaring tuition fees

27 june 2011, 15:12
Columbia University, New York, USA. ©RIA Novosti
Columbia University, New York, USA. ©RIA Novosti
The spectacular rise in US college tuition fees is becoming a serious problem for students and many American families as they grapple with the worst economic crisis since the 1930s, AFP reports.

In the past week Michigan State University announced a 7% tuition hike, Oklahoma State University raised its tuition by 4.8% and the University of Nebraska increased its prices by 5% for incoming undergraduates.

"College prices have been going up faster than any others costs in the American economy, faster even than healthcare and certainly faster than inflation and family income," said Patrick Callan, Founder of the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education.

"What we see in this economic downturn is an acceleration of a trend that's been going on for three decades and it shifts more and more cost on students and families."

Anger at federal budget cuts to education spilled over into nationwide protests in March and April and students are clearly struggling to cope with the added financial burden.

Natalie Papini will be a junior this year at Middle Tennessee State University, where officials have proposed a 9.8% increase in fees and tuition, according to online publication Inside Higher Ed.

"I just think it's this never-ending cycle. I just see it keep going up and not going down," said Papini, who receives multiple scholarships but still rents her text books rather than buying them.

"We wouldn't turn on the heat in the winter to save money and we don't drive anywhere if we don't have to," she told AFP.

Of the more than 2,000 universities offering undergraduate courses in the United States, there is a wide range of pricing, a senior economist at Pew Research Center, Richard Fry, told AFP.

A good portion of those universities, mostly state and regional schools, cost between $3,000 and $9,000 each year (not including food and lodging), while another spectrum of prices at private universities costs students an average of between $21,000 and $42,000 each year. Less than 2% of universities cost more than $42,000 a year.

According to CollegeBoard, which monitors trends in higher education, only one third of full-time students attend college without some form of financial aid, and more and more students are resorting to loans to make ends meet.

"The way the middle-income families have been paying for this big run-up in price is by borrowing. So student loans have been going up dramatically and every graduate class has borrowed more money," Callan said.

Total education borrowing increased by 10% between 2009 and 2010, according to CollegeBoard and according to the most recent data from 2008, 61% of dependant students from families with incomes between $60,000 and $90,000 had a median education debt of $17,000.

That number goes up for those at private nonprofit institutions where 75% of students have a median debt of $21,100 dollars and at for-profit colleges 99% finished with an average debt load of $34,600.

"Most people are going to start asking: is the benefit really worth it to go to a more expensive place or can you get a good education at these other places," Callan said.

According to a study published in May by Pew Research, 57% of Americans think that "the higher education system in the US fails to provide students with good value for the money they and their families spend."

"Nevertheless it's much better to go to college than not go to college, even in a bad economy the unemployment rate among college graduates is lower than it is for non-college graduates," said Callan.

Fry said college enrollment was still at an all-time high, partly because people are prepared to fork out more because ultimately it pays career-wise to get into the more expensive schools.

But the soaring tuition fees are putting up obstacles to America's much-vaunted upward mobility. "The system as a whole has become more stratified by income," said Callan.

Community colleges with lower prices ($2,700 on average) -- typically offering two-year vocational courses on simpler no-frills campuses -- are filling up with double-digit application growth over the past two years.

"This recession has been so deep and so much more prolonged that it has really driven this very record enrollment in our colleges," said Norma Kent, spokeswoman for the American Association of Community Colleges.

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