BEAM: College Is No Longer A Big Bargain

Louisiana has earned another dubious distinction. It tops the list of the six states that cut operating support for public universities for this fiscal year — a whopping 17.6 percent drop. The information on fiscal year 2014 state higher education funding comes from the “State Outlook,” which is compiled by the American Association of State Colleges and Universities (AASCU).

The trend is definitely going in the opposite direction. The association said most state legislatures have used increases in state revenues to begin reinvesting in public higher education after the largest decline in nearly a half century that occurred two years ago. Louisiana, unfortunately, has experienced billion-dollar shortfalls in recent years, and the future doesn’t look much brighter.

West Virginia was the closest state to Louisiana, cutting its higher education institutions by 8.9 percent. The other four are Wyoming (6 percent), Kansas (3.3 percent), Wisconsin (2.9 percent) and Missouri (1 percent).

New Hampshire holds down the No. 1 position when it comes to increased funding, a 28.6 percent increase. Others in the top five are Massachusetts (16.8 percent), Washington (12 percent), North Dakota (10.7 percent) and Montana (8.7 percent).

Our neighboring states also increased their higher education funding. Texas increased its appropriations by 6.2 percent. Mississippi funding was up 5.3 percent, and Arkansas was up by 1.6 percent.

Massachusetts increased funding of public higher education, using funds from $500 million in expected new state revenues. Minnesota legislators approved a $2 billion increase in state taxes over two years. The funds will come from an increase in tax rates on wealthy state residents, the closing of corporate tax loopholes and an increase in the cigarette tax. Tuition was also frozen.

The financial shape of Louisiana’s public higher education institutions began to improve during the two terms of former Gov. Mike Foster (1996-2004) and reached its peak during the four-year term of former Gov. Kathleen Blanco (2004-08).

The State Higher Education Executive Officers Association compiled state appropriations to higher education figures from 1987 to 2012. In 1987, Louisiana appropriated $5,785 per full-time student. Tuition totaled $3,011 that same year. The state reached its peak funding level in fiscal 2008, Blanco’s last budget. State appropriations totaled $8,311 per student. Tuition was $2,658. By fiscal year 2012, state funding had decreased to $5,243, and tuition was up to $3,389.

In 2012, Texas state support for public higher education totaled $6,749 per full time student and tuition was $4,030. Arkansas state support totaled $5,635 and tuition was $2,948. Tuition in Arkansas dropped from $4,154 in fiscal 2011. Mississippi appropriated $4,887 for higher education and tuition averaged $4,399.

Higher education funding nationwide was balanced in fiscal 2012. State support totaled $5,906 per student and tuition was $5,189. In New Hampshire (the No. 1 state), support was lopsided. State appropriations totaled $1,835 and tuition was $9,972. Massachusetts (No. 2) was balanced. In fiscal 2012, state support totaled $6,332 and tuition was $6,654.

OK, what are all of these statistics telling us? The bottom line is that the cost of a college education in recent years has shifted the financial burden from the states to students and their families. And that accounts for the tremendous rise in student loan debt. There is somewhere between $902 billion and $1 trillion in total outstanding student loan debt in the United States today. That debt is higher than outstanding credit card debt.

American Student Assistance reports that 20 million Americans attend college each year, and 12 million of them borrow annually. There are 37 million students with outstanding loans.

The non-profit organization said as of Quarter 1 in 2012, the average student loan balance for all age groups was $24,301. About onequarter of borrowers owe more than $28,000; 10 percent owe more than $54,000; 3 percent owe more than $100,000; and less than 1 percent, or 167,000 people, owe more than $200,000.

WWL-TV in New Orleans reported in 2011 that about 48 percent of college students in Louisiana incurred student debt, the seventh-lowest percentage in the country. Those that do have debt incur an average of $24,548, the 16th-highest in the country, the station said.

It will come as no surprise that New Hampshire, where tuition averaged $9,972 in 2012, has the highest student debt rate, an average of $32,440. Utah has the smallest average debt at $17,227, according to NBC News. Others with low average debt are Hawaii, California, Arizona and Nevada.

A college education is as important today for success as it ever was, but the prospects aren’t too bright for high school graduates. State funding cutbacks have led to higher tuition, and that translates to higher student debt at a time when employment prospects aren’t good for many graduates.

Louisiana definitely needs to rethink its priorities. Two immediate goals should be to provide more state support for higher education and reform its TOPS scholarship program to ensure that those funds are getting to students with the best chance of graduating. Their future and the state’s hang in the balance.

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