Universities need to rein in tuition

December 8, 2008
Brain drain receives a lot of attention in Indiana, and for good reason. It's unfortunate when bright graduates from Indiana colleges flee the state for greener pastures. As a result, we spend a lot of time and money on initiatives and programs to persuade those graduates to stay.

A bigger problem, however, could be getting students into Indiana colleges in the first place. Unfortunately, there's a major stumbling block to education beyond high school — too many people in the state simply can't afford it.

A new study by a national higher education advocacy group has given Indiana a flunking grade for college affordability. The state ranks 31st nationally in percentage of family income it takes to pay for a four-year college education.

The report, "Measuring Up 2008: The National Report Card on Higher Education," by the nonpartisan National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education, found that the average Indiana family must spend 30 percent of its income to afford education at a public four-year university. That's 2 percent more than the national average and double the percentage families in the five top-performing states spend.

The study concluded: "Indiana's investment in need-based financial aid is very high when compared with top-performing states. Nevertheless, the share of family income needed to pay for college is very large when compared with other states, and the state does not offer low-priced college opportunities."

There is no easy answer to this problem, but anyone involved in work-force development in Indiana should be concerned.

State programs that increase college affordability are helpful and should be applauded when they make economic sense. For instance, the governor's proposed Hoosier College Promise plan, which could help 24,000 new students each year pursue higher education, deserves a fair shake from lawmakers when it comes up in the General Assembly. The governor seems intent on financing the plan with minimal impact on taxpayers.

Government programs, however, won't be a cure-all for this issue. It is unlikely that any meaningful progress will take place until public universities get serious about keeping tuition hikes in check. Nationally, the report notes, college tuition costs have risen 439 percent since 1982 while median family income has risen only 147 percent.

In Indiana, according to the Commission for Higher Education, average tuition at public four-year universities rose 105 percent from 1997 to 2007 while personal income grew only 44.2 percent

It's no wonder the average annual student-loan amount in Indiana in 2007 was $4,625, up 62 percent from the start of the decade.

Scholarship programs aren't enough. The state's universities and the Legislature must work harder to keep tuition affordable. If they don't, a barrier will continue to exist between young Hoosiers and the education they need to meaningfully contribute to the state's economy.


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