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College Students Squeezed by Rising Costs, Less Aid

December 9, 2008 at 6:35 PM EST
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More college students and their families are struggling to afford tuition at public institutions due to increasing costs and state funding cuts in education. John Tulenko of Learning Matters Television takes a look at the impact of rising higher education costs in the second of a two-part series.
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JIM LEHRER: Now, the second of our stories on the rising costs of higher education. Last night, it was the burden of growing student debt. Tonight, the matching effects on public colleges and universities.

John Tulenko of Learning Matters Television, which produces education stories for the NewsHour, has our report.

JOHN TULENKO, Learning Matters Television: Back in September, Kristina Hofsaess was starting college.

MOM OF STUDENT: First time away from home.

JOHN TULENKO: But she wasn’t moving into a college dormitory. Her home is five miles off campus at a La Quinta motel.

Kristina’s college, Montclair State University in New Jersey, is housing some 200 students here after running out of room in dorms.

KRISTINA HOFSAESS, student: I definitely imagined going to campus, staying in a dorm, but there’s just so many students.

JOHN TULENKO: Enrollment is surging at the nation’s 643 public colleges and universities. That’s a result of tough times. Montclair State’s president Susan Cole.

SUSAN COLE, president, Montclair State University: When people are losing their jobs, being laid off, uncertain about what the economy is going to bring, they turn to higher education in order to prepare themselves better to compete.

JOHN TULENKO: About 60 percent of students have turned to public colleges, increasingly because of the price, tuition and fees that average just $6,500 a year.

ADRIANNE MOE, student: When I was looking for schools, my dad was out of work. At the time, I knew that it was slightly tight and that we needed to be efficient in where we were looking.

JOHN TULENKO: Students are also transferring in from private colleges.

LIAM DRISLANE, student: I came to Montclair because it’s about half the cost.

JOHN TULENKO: How much did you save?

LIAM DRISLANE: Probably over $20,000 a year. The loans were obscene.

Straining the system

JOHN TULENKO: Public colleges are turning away tens of thousands of qualified students; those who've gotten in are straining the system.

How many of you had difficulty getting the classes that you wanted? That's a lot.

SHANTE BURGESS, student: It's revolving doors to get into classes. They tell you when you can register for classes, and everyone has their laptop, and they're waiting for your time to be able to able to register for a class, and everyone -- it's like, "Ready, set, go."

JOHN TULENKO: How many classes that you wanted were you able to get into?

JESSICA LOZAK, student: Two.

JOHN TULENKO: Out of?

JESSICA LOZAK: Five.

JOHN TULENKO: How do you feel about that?

JESSICA LOZAK: Very angry about that, honestly, paying this money and taking classes that I don't want to take that I don't feel, you know, like I want to take it all, but I have to in order to graduate.

JOHN TULENKO: But, of course, it actually could slow you down.

JESSICA LOZAK: Yes. There are many instances where students are prevented from graduating because they don't have one or two classes.

JOHN TULENKO: Enrollment at Montclair State increased by 5 percent this year to 17,400. More students means more large classes.

How many students are in your class?

DIANE FARRELL, professor: 101.

JOHN TULENKO: Do you have many classes like that?

DIANE FARRELL: I've had 130 in my class, and it was really -- it was just overwhelming. And at the final exam, there was one girl who I wasn't sure I had ever really even seen her face.

States slash higher education funds

JOHN TULENKO: To cope with the influx of students, Montclair State has hired more teachers, most like Bill Lipkin.

BILL LIPKIN, adjunct professor: I'm a Roads Scholar, because I'm on the road going from school to school.

JOHN TULENKO: Lipkin is a part-time professor who teaches six classes at four New Jersey colleges, including Montclair State. Instructors like him teach half of all college courses nationwide, up from 30 percent a decade ago.

Adjunct faculty, as they're called, help colleges teach more students and save money.

BILL LIPKIN: An adjunct gets approximately one-fourth to teach the same course as what a full-timer gets, which means you could have four adjuncts for the same price as one full-timer and you're not paying benefits.

I'm running -- you know, at my age, running around like a lunatic to make maybe as much as a full-timer is making to teach one class that day.

JOHN TULENKO: Are colleges the bad guy?

BILL LIPKIN: Today, the state is the bad guy for cutting the funding. The state has reduced funding for education in the current budget.

JOHN TULENKO: It's not just New Jersey. Twenty-one states have announced cuts in funding for higher education. Thirty-five states spend less per college student today than they did in 2002.

But federal aid to colleges has increased over the same time. The chair of the House Education and Labor Committee, California Democrat George Miller, sees a pattern in the states' behavior.

REP. GEORGE MILLER, D.-Calif.: The states, in fact, are disinvesting in their public higher education systems. We increased the loan limits. We increased the Pell Grants. And they walk away and put the money somewhere else in the state. I think it's a game that has to stop.

JOHN TULENKO: Cuts in state funds have led some public colleges to eliminate programs, lay off faculty, even reduce salaries.

Montclair State has done some cutting. It's let clerical workers go, left administrative positions vacant, canceled purchases of new equipment, and deferred maintenance.

Tuition rises to cover shortfalls

JOHN TULENKO: But so far the university has avoided drastic cost-cutting measures. In fact, it's added academic programs, hired more full-time faculty than ever, and still balanced its budget. How? Well, like public colleges everywhere, Montclair State has a fallback position, another reliable source of money.

SUSAN COLE: Tuition.

JOHN TULENKO: What's been happening with tuition?

SUSAN COLE: Tuition has been rising. As the state defaults on its, what I think, is obligation and responsibility to support public higher education, that piece of the support is taken up by students and their families.

JOHN TULENKO: The shift, though gradual, is significant. In 1988, 50 percent of Montclair's financing came from the state. Tuition made up 17 percent. Today, money from students, not the state, provides most of the funds.

Tuition and fees here total nearly $10,000 a year, double what they were in 2000. Similar increases are happening almost everywhere. And while declining state aid is one cause, colleges' spending habits are also contributing.

For instance, across the country, public and private colleges alike have spent billions on new construction projects. Lacking state money, New Jersey's public colleges had to borrow to build.

The consequences of borrowing

JOHN TULENKO: In the last six years, Montclair State borrowed $78 million for dorms, $94 million for a classroom building, but it also borrowed $98 million for gym renovations and a new student recreation center.

A recreation center in tough times?

SUSAN COLE: Yes, that's a very interesting question. A number of years ago, the students came to me, and they said, "We need a recreation center."

JOHN TULENKO: They may say they want it, but shouldn't you be the parent here and say, "I'm sorry, that's indulgent"?

SUSAN COLE: It is not indulgent. Students in New Jersey live in the densest population in the country. They don't feel healthy. They should have a place where they can work out, where they can do aerobics. This is not a luxury; this is critical to a healthy life.

JOHN TULENKO: To Susan Cole, the real problem is that New Jersey has been unwilling to pay for gyms or classrooms, forcing colleges like hers to borrow.

SUSAN COLE: We have a choice. We can say, "We'll either let students come to this campus and study in chemistry labs that were built a half-a-century ago or we will build them ourselves and borrow for it."

JOHN TULENKO: But the cost of paying off those loans has helped make New Jersey tuition second highest in the nation, and that has serious implications for public colleges.

SUSAN COLE: You can ask the fellow who takes the tolls on the highway, the guy who works in the 7-Eleven, you can ask your doctor or your lawyer, do you think your children should go to college? Everybody's answer will be yes.

But over the long term, if the state continues to default, then we will have an impact on who it is that can afford to seek a higher education. It will change. Ultimately, it will change the demographics of the institution. That's very dangerous for society.

JOHN TULENKO: Who will be able to come in that future scenario?

SUSAN COLE: Those who can afford it.

JOHN TULENKO: And everyone else?

With the economy worsening, many states are predicting budget shortfalls for next year. Faculty can expect further layoffs and cuts to academic programs. Students can expect to pay more.

JIM LEHRER: You can watch our previous story about student debt and listen to podcasts featuring people profiled in both reports on our Web site. Just go to PBS.org. Click on "TV Shows" and then "The Online NewsHour."