The 21st century has generated its share of bleak circumstances. Near the top of that list is the soaring cost of college and the debt incurred by students.
Sadly, students are now forced to weigh the value of their education primarily on dollars-and-cents issues. “How soon will I earn enough money to repay my loans?” “Should I choose a major offered at a cheaper college instead of the field that interests me?” “Should I quit college to get a full-time job, save up and finish some other time?” “Is my degree worth the debt?”
In a legislative session dominated by ideological point-scoring, the Indiana General Assembly conducted one of its few meaningful discussions in 2012 last week. Lawmakers moved forward a bill to streamline the college credit transfer process. It would require state-funded universities to include 30 hours of general-education credit hours that are compatible with any other in-state school. That way, students transferring from one school to another would not have to retake courses already completed because their new destination does not accept the previous school’s credits. Thus, they are not paying twice.
If you’ve been out of college for a few decades, such a transfer glitch may seem inconsequential. It’s not.
The average tuition paid by a freshman at an Indiana college rose from $3,233 in 2000 to $6,576 last year, according to the Indiana Commission for Higher Education. At a hearing on the bill Monday, Higher Ed Commissioner Teresa Lubbers handed legislators a sobering statistic. Indiana now has the third-highest student-loan default rate in the country. That is troubling, to say the least.
That default rate was 11.61 percent in 2009, according to annual reports by campus financial aid offices to the U.S. Department of Education. In a state that will need an additional 1 million college-trained workers to compete internationally, the defaults represent an open wound. Hoosiers trying to gain skills to advance in the labor force instead fall further behind. “Loan defaults are most common at the community college level, as those students generally have the highest level of financial need,” Jason Bearce, Higher Education associate commissioner, told the Tribune-Star.
At the four-year public universities, the heftiest tuition and fee increases occurred at the main campuses. From 2000 to 2012, those costs increased 154.5 percent at Purdue in West Lafayette, 133 percent at Indiana State, 132.2 percent at Ball State, 124.7 percent at Indiana University in Bloomington, and 122 percent at IUPUI, according to the Commission for Higher Ed. Lubbers testified that two of every three graduates of a four-year public college in Indiana carries a student-loan debt of more than $27,000.
The college affordability issue has entrenched arguments from every player involved. The schools correctly point out the legislature has allowed the cost burden to shift from the state to the students’ families and the universities. Lawmakers say they’re funneling more actual dollars toward higher ed, but the tuition increases by the colleges exceed the rate of inflation; the state simply can’t keep up.
Everybody’s right, and everybody’s wrong. The bottom line is those tuition prices, the student-loan debts, and the rate of loan defaults. Those are real. Recently, IU cut its summer-term tuition. Purdue began a transition to year-round semesters, quickening the degree process. ISU President Dan Bradley set a goal, last fall, of holding future increases to the cost-of-living index. Last week, an ISU affordability task force announced a long list of recommendations to ease students’ financial burdens.
It all sounds good. The real proof will come when students actually see their tuition decrease or at least remain unchanged, and when their loans are no longer the size of a mortgate payment. Until then, the Legislature, the colleges and the Commission for Higher Education must keep working on it.