Dreams Detoured | When high college costs hit home, the pain is often palpable

by Steve Giegerich

If the rising cost of college can be compared to war, then at least one battle line runs through the kitchen of a ranch house in central Iowa — and Ashley Stockdale is among the wounded. It was here last winter in Iowa Falls (population 5,200), after three months of anxious conversation around the kitchen table, that Ashley surrendered, deferring her long-held dream of attending the University of Iowa. The reason? One word: money.

First-year student Ashley Stockdale on the campus of Ellsworth Community College in Iowa Falls, Iowa – far from the state’s flagship university, where she had hoped to enroll.

It would be thrilling to report that Ashley’s decision to pursue a college education was rooted fully in her desire for a lifetime of learning. In truth, personal and intellectual growth was just a part of it. Ashley is 18 and, like many 18-year-olds, she viewed college as a means of escape, in this instance from Iowa Falls and nearby Alden (population 877), the towns where she has lived since she was a toddler.

After graduating from Iowa Falls-Alden High School last fall, Ashley wanted nothing more than to go to school in a place where everybody didn’t know her name.

And she knew exactly where she wanted to do it: among the 28,000 students on the UI campus at Iowa City, 135 miles southeast of Iowa Falls.

A field trip during her sophomore year convinced Ashley that her educational future was in Iowa City. The following year she identified the dormitory where she hoped to live, singling out Hillcrest Hall for its fitness center, a reputation for above-average dining hall food and a location an acceptable distance from the main campus. “It’s the only school she ever talked about,” said Ashley’s mother, Crystal.

Last August, shortly before the start of her senior year, Ashley sent her application, along with a $50 filing fee and a $75 housing registration fee, to UI. The thick envelope signaling her acceptance arrived in November, along with a financial aid statement.

Tuition, room, board, books and other living expenses — the university informed her — would total approximately $15,000 per year. The financial aid package would cover tuition and fees, but UI left it up to Ashley to come up with the rest — about $6,650. The amenity that Ashley had her heart set on — a room in Hillcrest Hall — turned out to be the tipping point. “I didn’t take the housing into consideration,” she said.

And so the battle began. Concerned that her daughter might incur thousands of dollars in student loan debt, Crystal Stockdale, a single mom, pushed Ashley to stay home and save money by attending nearby Ellsworth Community College. Ashley balked. More bad news came when the federal government denied Ashley’s application for a Pell Grant. The $7,000 Ashley had earned the previous year as a part-time waitress, combined with Crystal’s $39,000 salary as a nursing home administrator, pushed the family’s household income above the U.S. Department of Education’s ever-fluctuating eligibility standards. A family income of $46,000 may not go far in America’s population centers, but in central Iowa, it places a family squarely in the middle class.

Ashley capitulated at the end of January. Disappointed and discouraged, she didn’t tell her mother — or anyone else — when she submitted an application to Ellsworth. The grants and scholarships awarded by the community college will help cover the bulk of the $4,400 she’ll spend on tuition and fees during the next school year.

As Ashley moved through graduation and into the summer, her disappointment peaked.

“All that talk about going to Iowa, and then I wasn’t going there anymore,” she said. “It really sucked telling people. And now my friends who are going to UI are starting to get ready, they’re finding out where they are going to live, who their roommates will be, signing up for classes. That makes it really bad.”

While many of her classmates pursue the dream she has deferred, Ashley is pricing used cars for the daily commute to Ellsworth from the apartment she has just leased in Iowa Falls. (Crystal, herself a recent college graduate, is starting a new job and is moving with her younger daughter, Haley, to a new home about an hour away.)

Although she’ll be responsible for monthly car payments and rent, Ashley is determined to save enough money to transfer from Ellsworth to UI next year. She began classes as an undeclared major in late August with no illusions about why her higher education began in Iowa Falls instead of Iowa City.

“It’s all about cost,” she said.

As higher education expert David L. Kirp pointed out, it used to be about something entirely different. “We have an increasingly stratified education system, one that is less race-stratified and more economic-stratified than it was 20 years ago,” said Kirp, a professor at the Goldman School of Public Policy at the University of California-Berkeley and the author of Shakespeare, Einstein and the Bottom Line: The Marketing of Higher Education. When the various components of that stratification are assembled, a picture emerges that looks very much like Ashley Stockdale:

  • She lives in a state where publicly funded universities have responded to state-mandated budget cuts by increasing tuition and fees nearly 60 percent over five years.
  • As a federal reauthorization bill with the potential to give families a clearer idea of the true cost of college drags through Congress, she fell through the financial safety net designed to make college more affordable for low- and middle-income students.
  • Finally, neither Ashley nor her family saved enough for her college education.
Ashley — and tens of thousands of academically able students just like her — are at the center of the debate over whether a college education remains within the grasp of all who seek its benefit.

Some say that Ashley is an anomaly — that a postsecondary education at a four-year public institution remains attainable even for families of moderate income. The same policy-makers, higher education advocates and college administrators are less optimistic, however, about future participation rates for young people from lower-income families.

“For the first time in our history, or certainly since World War II, we are on the cusp of not giving the same opportunity to the next generation that we have always given to successive generations in the past,” said David W. Breneman, dean of the Curry School of Education at the University of Virginia.

The numbers tell a compelling story. Between 1994-95 and 2004-05, according to the College Board, tuition and fees at public four-year universities have risen by 51 percent. Tuition and fees at private four-year schools grew by 36 percent over the same period. And there is no relief in sight. The College Board’s most recent annual study on college costs reported that students attending public, four-year institutions paid 10.5 percent more in tuition and fees in 2004-05 than they did the previous year. At private institutions, those basic costs rose 6 percent, on average, during the same period. And community colleges, long a bastion of affordable higher education, charged 8.7 percent more in tuition in 2004-05 than they did in 2003-04.

Significantly, these cost increases have come during a time when family incomes have been essentially stagnant. In fact, Census Bureau figures show that, when adjusted for inflation, the mean income for families in the lowest income bracket has actually declined since 2000.

In the discussion about rising costs, College Board economist Sandy Baum has — over the past few years — been the voice of reason and reassurance. As she has pointed out to congressional committees, the media and anyone else who will listen, financial aid has played and continues to play a major role in offsetting college prices. Adjusted for inflation, the total assistance provided to the nation’s college students has risen by 122 percent since 1995, according to the College Board. Even so, experts say the overall picture is not healthy. For one thing, the bulk of this financial aid comes not in the form of grants, but as loans that must be repaid following graduation. Also, for the first time since the National Council of State Legislatures (NCSL) started averaging state expenditures for higher education in the mid-1980s, appropriations for public colleges and universities dropped in 2004 by 2 percent. The NCSL study this year reported that higher education budgets have rebounded, but only slightly — by 3.5 percent.

The more vivid and lasting impression of public support for postsecondary education, however, is Measuring Up: The National Report Card on Higher Education. The study, issued biannually by the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education, rates — or “grades” — states on several quality measures, including cost. Rating affordability in 2004, the center found that no state earned an “A” grade, and only one — California — received a “B.” Two states earned “Cs” and 11 got “Ds.” The remaining 36 states — including Iowa — flunked.

State budget pressures pump up the price

Robert D. Koob divides in half his decade-long tenure as president of his alma mater, the University of Northern Iowa (UNI). During the first five years, state appropriations rose faster than tuition. That trend has since reversed. In fact, from 2000 to 2004, the amount of state funding delivered to UNI dropped by $31.7 million. The lost revenue forced UNI to hike tuition by nearly 60 percent over five years.

Julie Bell, education program director for NCSL, blames Northern Iowa’s predicament on what she calls the “no-new-tax mentality” sweeping through statehouses across the country. James Lubker, UNI’s interim provost, is more blunt:

“For as long as academia has existed, there has been a contract between academia and society,” he said. “Academia has provided a quality education and, in return, the state has made sure the students did not pay too much for that education. But, now, the state is not keeping up its end of the contract.”

Out of a sense of fairness, Lubker acknowledged that lawmakers in Des Moines are not totally at fault. Like most states, Iowa has been hit hard by increases in Medicaid funding, K-12 appropriations triggered by the No Child Left Behind Act and other education reforms, and the rising cost of maintaining state highways and other infrastructure. When those costs were coupled with a mandate to balance the annual budget in a state with a shrinking population (and tax base), legislative support for Iowa’s three state universities and 15 community college districts — once a slam-dunk — evaporated.

“Colleges are not producing these increases in price,” said Michael S. McPherson, president of the Spencer Foundation and former president of Minnesota’s Macalester College. “There’s a little bit of bait-and-switch here. Legislators on the front end want to take money away from subsidizing higher education, and then they say the colleges have to get their costs under control.”

William E. Troutt, president of Rhodes College in Memphis, Tenn., served as chairman of the National Commission on the Cost of Higher Education that issued a report in 1998 calling on colleges to get costs under control. Then, as now, Troutt said, the economics of higher education follow a unique but simple formula: “Price equals Cost minus Subsidy.” Private schools draw their subsidies from endowments and ambitious fund-raising campaigns. At public institutions, subsidies also come in the form of state appropriations.

Troutt’s formula, applied to Northern Iowa, yields this quotient: During the first five years of the 21st century, the students’ share — their portion of the total price for a UNI education — has jumped from 26 percent to 42 percent. To prevent that percentage from increasing further, “leaner and meaner” has become an administrative mantra at UNI — one that has led to 8 percent reductions in both enrollment and full-time faculty.

In the eye of that budgetary storm — the office of the president, 20 Seerley Hall — a single candle burns constantly whenever Koob is present. It symbolizes the sense of calm that he has tried to project while guiding UNI’s 12,800 students, 784 faculty and other administrative and support personnel through the crisis. Koob’s motivation to protect and preserve this tree-lined, 900-acre campus supersedes his role as president: He’s also a UNI graduate.

Like many mid-size state institutions, the University of Northern Iowa grew from its beginnings as a teachers’ college to accommodate the baby-boomers and then their “echo boom” children. Thousands of these graduates have turned a quality, affordable college education into a comfortable way of life.

With evident pride, Koob stresses that Northern Iowa has managed to downsize without sacrificing its core mission. Five years of budgetary purgatory haven’t altered UNI’s 16.4-1 student-teacher ratio, its average class size of 28, or its average enrollment-to-graduation rate of 4.5 years — well below the national average of six years.

UNI has taken several steps to maintain quality while cutting costs, including:

  • Centralizing the budget process.
  • Partnering with the City of Cedar Falls in cost-cutting measures that include shared recreational facilities and programs.
  • Embarking on an ambitious program to generate more revenue from non-university conferences and other events held on campus.
  • Pushing up the timetable for the implementation of online technology for student services.
  • Consolidating responsibilities in career services and other departments.
  • Eliminating competitive men’s tennis and swimming teams.
Most important, by hiring adjuncts to replace retiring or departing full-time faculty, UNI took a crucial step toward reducing the line item that eclipses all other segments of higher education budgets: personnel salaries and health benefits. When all was said and done, according to Thomas Schellhardt, UNI’s vice president for business and finance, the school was forced to lay off only 10 employees, all of them members of the clerical or maintenance staffs.

“You have to look for ways to work on it at the cost side and the subsidy side,” said Rhodes College President William Troutt. “And the schools that are vibrant and successful will be very attentive to managing costs and very attentive to getting the resources they need for their students.”

As pleased as he is with what UNI has accomplished during a difficult time, Koob is deeply disappointed when he considers the many young men and women — most from low- to moderate-income families — who are unable to attend Northern Iowa.

“The reason we achieved our quality goal is that we reduced access. It’s that simple,” he said.

Among the students who are on campus, there isn’t much discussion about those victimized by that 8 percent enrollment cut — the ones prevented from ever taking a class in Cedar Falls. If there has been a backlash over high tuition and fees, senior Tarek Fahmy, vice president of the Northern Iowa Student Government, hasn’t noticed it. To be sure, the campus newspaper, the Northern Iowan, has dutifully reported the consequences of budget-cutting – students’ complaints about reduced summer hours at campus computer labs, fewer sections of mandatory courses and the wintertime shutdown of the campus shuttle bus service. But when it comes to the price of their education, Fahmy and other student leaders say UNI students have complained little.

“The only time the students care about how much it costs to go here is when they have to pull the money out of their pocket to pay tuition,” said Fahmy.

Perhaps. But with 70 percent of UNI students receiving financial aid — mostly in the form of loans — the amount of money going directly from wallet to bursar is relatively small. Even regional, mid-size and relatively affordable state schools such as Northern Iowa are no longer “pay as you go,” said Jane Oates, senior education adviser to Sen. Edward M. Kennedy on the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee for Higher Education and Workforce Issues.

As UNI student Brenda Liddle can attest, when housing, books and other expenses are added to $5,300 in undergraduate tuition and fees, the only recourse is to secure loans and hope part-time employment covers the rest. A senior music education major, Liddle spends up to 30 hours a week working part-time jobs. Her earnings have offset her educational expenses somewhat, but hardly enough. She estimates that, at graduation, her loan debt will total nearly $50,000. “I’m scared,” Liddle admitted. “But I can’t do anything about it.”

While Koob faults himself for not doing enough to ease the “psychological barrier” associated with UNI’s rising costs, students and staff give him high marks for honesty. Unfortunately, in almost every corner of the campus, forthrightness has done little to ease the sting of fiscal reality.

Jeffrey Copeland has been with UNI’s Department of English Language and Literature for 15 years, the last 10 as chairman. He paraphrases Dickens to sum up his tenure: “I’ve seen the best of days, I’ve seen the leanest of days; I’ve seen it all.”

In the best of days, seven years ago, “the coffers were full. We didn’t waste much, but we didn’t want for much either.” On the more recent bad days, Copeland and his faculty colleagues must contend with students understandably peeved over being wait-listed for a mandatory writing class (some opt to take the course at nearby Hawkeye Community College). His worst experiences came when expected budget appropriations twice failed to materialize, forcing him to rescind full-time job offers to successful candidates.

“You can imagine what that does to the reputation of the college,” Copeland said.

The leaner and meaner Northern Iowa means Copeland’s department now fills 25 percent of its classrooms with part-time, adjunct instructors. Meanwhile, full-time faculty members have added more service and scholarship activities to their workload — curriculum development, academic committees and research.

Copeland’s department is spread thinner in the classroom as well. Faculty members are teaching classes they have never taught before. An instructor with expertise in the literature of the American Revolution, for instance, could well wind up also teaching a course in early 20th century American literature. Sometimes, said Copeland, the faculty member has only a few months — as opposed to years of concentrated study — to prepare for the class.

“Everybody is now a ‘Renaissance individual’ in our department. Everybody teaches everything. Is that good?” he asked rhetorically. “No.” The former co-owner of a minor league baseball franchise, Copeland likens the situation to putting an infielder in to pitch. Taking the analogy one step further, though, he praised his faculty colleagues for “stepping up to the plate.” In a moment of reflection, Copeland admitted the changes have in many ways made his department and the university stronger. He uses personnel more effectively. Furthermore, budgetary pressures forced the elimination of several elective courses that, Copeland acknowledged, bordered on superfluous.

This process of cutting electives follows at least one expert’s prescription that colleges and universities adopt a “coherent curriculum” to rein in costs. “They need to fine-tune the balance between a wide diversity of offerings and high-quality courses,” said Paul E. Lingenfelter, executive director of the State Higher Education Executive Officers (SHEEO).

On the personnel side of the ledger, Copeland now shades toward making “smart hires,” generalists capable of teaching a wider range of subjects. Applicants with impressive but narrow areas of expertise are still welcome, but Copeland now also requires each job seeker to outline the broader contribution he or she can make to the university. Those who fail to provide a suitable response are not offered a position.

All of the fiscal moves at UNI — from Copeland’s efforts to hire new faculty to student services’ decision to upgrade the school’s online capabilities — eventually wind up in Tom Schellhardt’s office. It is his job to ensure that — whether state appropriations are high or low — Northern Iowa’s capital expenses don’t outstrip its revenues.

Like Copeland, Schellhardt sees a silver lining in the cloud that has hovered over Cedar Falls the past five years. “Whenever you lose resources and talent, you’re not a better school,” he acknowledged. “But from an efficiency and effectiveness standpoint, we’re better. We had to become more engaged in areas that maybe before we’d taken for granted.”

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