Editor's Note: This article is by Ryan Deffenbaugh and originally ran in The Oswegonian in September 2013 and has been updated to fit the format and include videos. The video is from The Bridge project, a collaborative effort between The Oswegonian, WTOP and WNYO, and was shot in March 2014 by Bryan Ruderman and Steven Radford.
Jaclyn Hart, an Oswego State junior broadcasting major, said she was driven since she was young to go to college by her mother, who received a bachelor's degree from Siena College and a master's degree from Union College.
Hart said her mother was able to pay her own way through college by working and earning multiple scholarships.
“Because my mom went through her college experience alone she has made it a point to not let any of her children have to do that,” Hart said.
But even with the support of her parents, Hart said she expects to find herself with $65,000 in debt before she graduates.
“I don’t feel that my education has suffered due to the high cost of college, because I feel that I made the most cost-friendly decision without sacrificing the value of high education,” Hart said. “With that being said, I do feel that I’m at a disadvantage after I leave college. The debt that I will be in after I leave sometimes seems like it’s not worth it.”
Hart’s story is similar to those of many college students and recent graduates. While U.S. culture has traditionally stressed the importance of a college education, the recent increase in tuition and, subsequently, amount of student debt, has left more students questioning if college is worth the cost than ever before.
The average cost of tuition, for both public and private universities, has skyrocketed around the country over the last several decades, forcing students to consider if the benefits still outweigh the costs.
The Department of Education started tracking tuition data from universities in 1965, at which point the average tuition (including fees, room and board) for a full academic year at a public university (adjusted into 2009-2010 dollars) was $6,592, while a full year at a private university cost students an average of $13,233. Compare that number to what the average college student paid for 2010-2011 academic year: $13,297 for public schools and $31,395 for private. The severity of the increases becomes clear.
That data is adjusted for inflation, a measure that, as pointed out by the Washington Post’s data blog, Wonkblog, many consider unfair given that college tuition can be a driver of inflation itself. If the numbers are not adjusted for inflation, the Wonkblog reports, average college tuition increased 297 percent from September 1990 to September 2012, the life span of recent Oswego State graduates. By comparison, healthcare costs, another industry in which rising costs have driven government intervention, have increased 152 percent over the same period of time, according to the Washington Post.
Oswego State has not been able to elude the rising costs either. The average total expenses for an in-state Oswego State student living on campus was $21,511 for the 2012-2013 academic year, according to Department of Education data. That is an increase of 2.5 percent from the year before and a 10.7 percent increase from the 2008-2009 academic year.
One of the factors driving the increase has been a cut in state funding to all SUNY schools, beginning during the height of the financial crisis in 2007, along with a state budget crisis in that year and the year following.
Oswego State President Deborah Stanley said that the overall attitude toward public funding of education has shifted.
“The original premise was that it’s good for the whole population to have educated people in our midst,” Stanley said. “And that has waned and what has really resided in people’s consciousness is that it’s a good, it’s something you buy, and I think that’s an unfortunate perspective.”
It’s a perspective that, Stanley said, has led to more people encouraging students to pay for their education with less state assistance.
“What you see is that the price tag of higher education has been more on the student, or moving to the student, rather than the state,” Stanley said. “Though we still do get some significant tax payer support.”
Between 2007 and 2011, the ratio of core institutional revenue provided by the state against that derived from tuition and fees has continually shifted to rely more on student tuition. According to data provided in Oswego State’s 2012 Self-Study, the school received 58 percent of its revenue from tuition and fees and the other 42 percent from taxpayer support during the 2007-2008 academic year. In 2010-2011, the school received 69 percent of its revenue from tuition and fees and 31 percent from taxpayer support. Oswego State received $24.4 million in taxpayer funds for the 2007-2008 academic year and $15.8 million for the 2013-2014 academic year, according to data provided by the Oswego State budget office.
While Oswego State is able to dictate its room and board fees, tuition is set by SUNY after being approved by state legislature.
Per semester tuition for Oswego State has increased $2,370 over the last 10 years, rising 42 percent from the 2002-2003 academic year to the 2012-2013 academic year, according to Oswego State budget office data.
Oswego State is currently in year three of a five-year plan called the Rational Tuition Plan, which increases tuition by $300 each academic year. According to Oswego State VP of Administration and Finance Nicholas Lyons, the plan came after the state cut funding to SUNY schools and asked each school to cut their budgets.
“The tuition stayed constant, but the amount of support the state gave us diminished,” Lyons said. “We were asked to cut our budgets, and we’ve done that. Now, we lost considerable moneys over that time, and that’s when the rational tuition plan was negotiated with the governor.”
The Rational Tuition Plan also provided Oswego State students with a respite from the sudden price fluctuations under the previous system, according to Lyons.
“We’ve always felt that a rational tuition plan that just depended on a very small cost of living increase year to year was a much fairer way to do it than to go, say, six years without a tuition increase then suddenly have to raise it ten percent because you need to catch up on all these costs,” Lyons said.
As with all tuition increases, the planned $300 tuition raise across all SUNY schools will first have to be approved by state legislature for each of the remaining years.
With the plan set to expire after that period, Oswego State administration is unable to say with certainty what tuition increases or decreases await SUNY schools following the plan’s expiration.
“Every year is uncertain,” Stanley said. “This plan was a five year plan, thereafter there’s no plan to increase tuition. Whether it is increased after that, legislature will have to be involved and that will be highly political. We’re hoping they won’t rip away state money, because we don’t advance that way.”
Room and board has been increasing as well. The room and board for students entering the 2012-2013 academic year was, on average, $12,510, according to Department of Education data. The amount is an increase of 1.6 percent from the year before, and a 13.1 percent increase from the 2009-2010 total.
The average 2012-2013 academic year costs for an Oswego State student for room and board was pricier than most SUNY counterparts. SUNY Plattsburgh, The College at Brockport and SUNY Geneseo all have average room and board rates between $10,000 and $11,000, while SUNY Cortland comes in slightly higher, though still lower than Oswego State, with an average room and board rate of $11,430, according to Department of Education data.
“Our rates are high when you look at the others,” Lyons said, “but the Oswego Guarantee freezes both room and meal plan rates for five years, so what you’re seeing on those rates is our highest amount.”
The Oswego Guarantee allows Oswego State students to pay the same room and board rate as they did their first semester for up to five years of living on campus. Under the policy, current freshmen will pay the $12,510 listed as the 2012-2013 rates for the entirety of their time living on campus, while sophomores, juniors and seniors will continue to pay their respective freshman year rates.
The policy is one that Julie Blissert, director of public affairs for Oswego State, said was unique to the school at the time. It came as a result of the fluctuating tuition.
“We had mid-year tuition increase that we didn’t know what they would be,” Blissert said. “So we thought, well the one thing we can control is room and board, and we can moderate the unpredictable tuition with very controllable room and board.
Lyons said the school has plans to stop the increases for the next two years.
“It’s a matter of competition; if you charge too much, people will go someplace else,” Lyons said. “So we decided for the next two years to not have any increases.”
Stanley said her concern is keeping tuition to the point that it can be in the middle range of state universities in the Northeast.
“The tuition increases are making us whole in many ways. We are stabilizing what we can offer students and making up for the state reductions,” Stanley said. “In some respects, moving SUNY tuition to a mean, so we’re not high, we’re not low. We are moving to a mean.”
Student loan debt by state from 4-year public school
Despite the rapid increases in tuition around the country, college enrollment has continued to rise. Between 2000 and 2010, total national enrollment in degree-granting institutions increased 37 percent, according to the Department of Education data. The increase is often attributed to the recent economic recession, which sent many out of the labor force and into higher education to gain skills and degrees.
The current economy has also dictated a college degree to be imperative to financial security. A recent study by The Hamilton Project found that, in 2010, 88 percent of 23 to 24-year-olds in the U.S. with a college degree were employed, while 64 percent of those with only high school degrees were employed. Men and women in the sample with college degrees also out-earned those with only a high school diploma by an average of $276 per week.
With a college education edging more and more toward becoming an absolute necessity, the trick for college-aged students and their families becomes paying for it all. With the average tuition costs making it difficult for potential students to pay their own way, they have turned increasingly to taking out loans. The total volume of college loans dispersed doubled from $55.7 billion (in 2011 dollars) in 2001-2002 to $113.4 billion in 2011-2012, according College Board data.
According to the Project on Student Loan Debt, two-thirds of college seniors who graduated in 2011 had student loan debt, with an average total of $26,600 per borrower.
74 percent of Oswego State 2011 graduates had some sort of debt, with an average of $26,123 per borrower, according to the project’s data, putting the school close to average nationally and slightly above the average for New York state public and private four-year non-profit universities, which had an average of 60 percent of 2011 graduates carrying debt at an average of $25,851 per student.
Many Oswego State students are also able to receive grant or scholarship aid. Department of Education data shows that 72 percent of Oswego State students received grant or scholarship aid in some form, with an average of $5,685 per student.
“I do believe places like Oswego are still the best value,” said Mark Humbert, the director of financial aid at Oswego State. “We provide a great education at a very good price. Not that it’s not difficult to pay it for families, we’re not saying that, but it’s still a good investment.”
Stanley said that public institutions such as SUNY still provide a better overall value than a private school.
“You will still find that, by and large, if you attend an independent institution,” Stanley said, “most students will have more debt and will pay a higher price over the time of their education than they will at a public institution.”
Despite paying a lower bottom line, many Oswego State students have been required to take out loans that affect their lives beyond graduation.
Amanda Servadio, who graduated in 2011 with a wellness management degree, said she at times has trouble understanding her loans and fears they will continue to get worse.
“I did not want to have the additional loans that going to a private school would force me to have, and I thought I was making a smart choice about my education,” said Servadio, who began working at an entry-level position following college. “I thought Oswego was a school that had a lot to offer at a much more affordable price than a private school. It’s unfortunate that SUNY schools are becoming more expensive too.”
Ensuring that students understand the loans they are taking out has become a priority for Oswego State administration in recent years. More attention has been driven to the issue following the increase in the number of students taking on debt, as well as an increase in the amount of attention being paid to how students handle their debt upon graduation.
Cohort default rates, which measure how often students from a university default on their student loans, have increasingly been used to meaure how a university’s students fare upon graduation. President Barack Obama uses cohort default rates as a metric in his college scorecard, which rates a college’s value using multiple variables.
Oswego State’s three-year official cohort default rates, tracks how many 2009 graduates default on their loans within three years, is 7.6 percent, according to Department of Education data. This falls below the national average of 13.6 percent, as well as the state average of 10.9 percent, but is higher than those of several similarly-sized SUNYs. The number is higher than SUNY Plattsburgh’s three-year rate of 4.4 percent, SUNY Potsdam’s 6.3 percent, SUNY Cortland’s 3.4 percent, The College at Brockport’s 2.6 percent and around even with SUNY Oneonta’s 7.2 percent.
“There are certainly those at SUNY who do a little better than us,” Humbert said. “I would consider us as the better middle of the pack in that regard.”
Humbert said the school is currently looking into working with a company, iGrad, that provides students with information and programs to better understand their loans. Humbert said the program can help students manage their finances while in school as well as after graduation.
“There’s a lot of training that can go on, a lot of resources we do offer, things like this that help students to say, ‘Hey there are resources you should be considering,’” Humbert said. “Have we done a good enough job of that? No, because if our default rate was zero, I’d tell you we did a perfect job. We’re not there, and neither is anyone else. But we’re working at that, and we want to get better at that.”
A chief concern among government, SUNY officials, and students alike is the possibility of rising tuition costs pricing out the lower income and middle class families, which have traditionally been able to use SUNY schools as a way to afford a college education.
“Our mission is an access mission,” Stanley said. “We will always have to give additional and differential aid to those individuals that can’t afford it, so we have to look at needs in order to meet that access mission.”
As a part of this, SUNY uses a tuition credit policy that covers the cost of any tuition increase for students receiving maximum TAP benefits that had previously covered the entire cost of tuition.
Stanley said a part of ensuring the school’s price tag is low enough to provide all students access is being as efficient as possible with funds and resources, including consortium deals with companies, exploring the possibility of online classes to save students money and sharing resources with other SUNY institutions.
“We are always looking to be as efficient and cost effective as we possibly can,” Stanley said. “It doesn’t make any sense for a public institution to not be efficient and cost effective.”
Blissert pointed out that Oswego State consistently places on U.S. News Best Value lists, and should continue to rank well regardless of measure.
“You do see more moving away from prestige-type rankings of U.S. News to the public good rankings of Washington Monthly, which we are on and do pretty well on too,” Blissert said.
Stanley said the most important thing for the school is to maintain a balance between a lower price and a competitive education.
“Access is two-pronged, it’s keeping the threshold low enough so that people will come and aspire to education,” Stanley said. “But then it is also parity. We must provide the same type of education everyone else can provide, especially the private universities, or it’s not access. If what we offer here is something less, something not as good, then it’s a problem, I think, and it’s widening the gap in our society between the haves and have nots.”