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Tuition 101: Higher rates don't add up

When student loan interest rates are reset for a year on

Saturday and the overall cost of a college education goes up by thousands of

dollars, students and their parents should demand to know why they are paying

significantly more for school these days and receiving substantially less.

Tuition at public universities, when inflation is taken into account, has

nearly tripled since the 1980s, according to the College Board. This leaves

students with no choice but to rely increasingly on credit to finance their

education. Students in New York are no exception. The most recent increase in

SUNY tuition, for the 2003-2004 school year, was 28 percent. On average, New

York students now face some of the highest loans in the country - with interest

rates rising almost 2 percent in the coming year.

While tuition and student indebtedness continue to rise, quality of

education, access to full-time faculty and any guarantee that a college diploma

ensures financial stability are evaporating. This imbalance is cause for

concern - and action.

Almost two-thirds of college students graduate with loan debt, the U.S.

Department of Education says. Students borrowed more than $60 billion from the

federal government for the 2004-2005 school year alone, according to the

College Board. The typical student at a public university graduates with

$15,500 in debt. The typical student attending a private, nonprofit university

ends up borrowing almost $20,000.

But this record debt does not cover all the necessary costs of college.

More and more students are using high-interest credit cards to help pay for

school. Estimates suggest that the amount of credit card debt among the average

college student has tripled since 1990. Today, about one in four college

students is using credit cards to finance his or her education.

As students go deeper into debt to pay for college, they should be worrying

about where their money is going. At many universities, the number of teachers

on campus has decreased while class size has gone up. Students have less

access to faculty and less individualized attention during their time at school.

New York, the largest state university system in the country, is doing

particularly poorly on this front. Loan debt has risen steadily within the

state. The typical New York student carries about $21,000 in student loan debt,

well above the national average, according to figures from the National Center

for Education Statistics.

Although New York's students are paying more, they are getting a lot less.

SUNY's enrollment has grown by 44,000 in the last decade. At the same time, the

number of full-time teaching positions at its state-operated schools - which

do not include community colleges - has been reduced by 1,200. SUNY's

state-operated enrollment now stands at more than 205,000, served by fewer than

11,000 full-time faculty. Most are being taught by adjunct professors,

part-time lecturers and graduate assistants who may have less experience.

In May, the SUNY Board of Trustees approved a new financial plan that will

allow the campuses across the system to hire an additional 380 full-time

professors. But the plan also anticipates a statewide enrollment increase of

7,700, so the positive effects will be limited.

Having fewer professors means enrolled students have less interaction with

faculty and often need extra time to graduate because there is no one available

to teach required courses. It also means that many qualified students are

being turned away from their dreams. According to the United University

Professors, last year 7,500 community college students were denied admission to

the SUNY four-year school of their choice because of lack of faculty to teach


Once students do graduate, they find that their high-priced college degrees

far from ensure financial stability.

Many recent college graduates are forced to take temporary jobs that

provide no benefits. Roughly 33 percent of people ages 18 to 34 lack health

insurance. This is a higher figure than is found in any other age bracket. With

contingent workers making up 16 percent of the labor force and rising, this

trend can only get worse.

With fewer good jobs available upon graduation and increased financial

pressures, many students are becoming more selective in their career choices.

They seek higher-paying jobs and avoid ones in public service, where their

talents are sorely needed. Students are also more likely than ever to interrupt

their education, to take much longer to finish or to drop out altogether.

We need to change our approach if we want college graduates to have

opportunities and options. Increasing the portion of federal student aid

devoted to grants, rather than loans, is an important step. Supporting student

loan forgiveness for public service is another. Giving employers incentives to

offer living wages and benefits would also help.

Although we may not be able to eliminate student loan debt, we can make

going into debt for a degree more worth it, rather than less.