College affordability: a shared obligation

Op-ed: The federal and state governments, students and their families, and higher education itself have an obl

As the first member of my family to attend college, I am very much a product of affordable higher education. It has also been the focus of my entire professional career. It is gratifying to see the issues of access, affordability and student debt given some prominence in the political arena in this election season. We also hear the concept of free college and — tied to that — career readiness on a regular basis. However, meaningful progress on this front will not be made if paying for higher education is approached as an exercise in cost shifting; rather, higher education must be approached as a shared responsibility.

The four entities in the higher education matrix — the federal government, state governments, students and their families, and higher education itself — must each acknowledge that just as they share the benefits associated with providing affordable and high quality higher education, they also have an obligation to share the costs. Unfortunately, over the past few decades, the focus has been on passing this responsibility up — or down — the line.

The federal government has long recognized the value in supporting higher education access and affordability. In the early 1970s, the federal Pell Grant program was a blessing for many students from low- and moderate-income families, covering about 80 percent of the cost of attending a public, four-year university. Today a Pell Grant covers less than one-third of those same costs. At the same time, the federal government now seems to emphasize loans over grants, with Federal Pell standing at about $30 billion a year and federal student loans at about $100 billion a year

If we are to develop a true cost-sharing partnership with regard to higher education, the federal government will need to rebalance its approach to financial aid so that grants are prioritized over loans, find more funding to bolster support for both grants and loans, and lower the student loan interest rate.

A similar trend has long been underway at the state level as well. In the 1970s, state governments supplied public colleges and universities with nearly 75 percent of their education funding. Today it is closer to 25 percent. Adjusted for inflation, 46 states are spending less per student on higher education today than before the recession hit. As a result, tuition has skyrocketed in many states, some with tuition 75 percent higher in 2016 compared to 2008. Fortunately, my state of Maryland has fared better than many other states. Thanks to steady state budget support and commitment to education, Maryland is one of only four states with a total tuition increase of less than 10 percent since 2008. In addition, each year the state of Maryland awards approximately $100 million in need-based grants, scholarships and loan repayment programs. These actions, unfortunately, have not offset direct state funding reductions.

To reach an equitable funding partnership, states must focus on what it actually costs to educate a student, make sure that is a reasonable figure and provide a reasonable percentage of that cost. In Massachusetts, I worked with the governor and legislature to reach a 50/50 split, with the state providing half of what it costs to educate a student and a combination of federal funding, institutional funding and tuition covering the remaining half.

Institutions have an important role to play in this ladder of affordability as well. The University System of Maryland (USM) has received national recognition for our deliberative efforts to promote cost cutting, cost containment and cost avoidance. We have also implemented effective approaches such as expanding the use of AP exams, early college, campus and statewide alliance agreements with community colleges, regional higher education centers where multiple USM institutions offer academic programs and other initiatives designed to reduce costs while improving completion.

The last and most important member of this partnership is students and their families, who must be mindful of the true cost of a college education. Looking at the average across the USM, if you factor out room and board, which are costs that students and families would incur regardless, and factor in the fact that 70 percent of our students get some sort of financial aid, you come to a bottom line of about $9,000 per year. Is that really too much to pay for a college education? The average debt at graduation for undergraduate students who attended a four-year public university is about $25,500. When you consider that 65 percent of jobs in America will require some type of college degree by 2020, that a college graduate is far less likely to face unemployment and earns far more than an individual with only a high school diploma and that three quarters of the jobs gained in the U.S. economy since 2008 went to individuals with a bachelor's degree or higher, we again have to ask if this cost isn't fairly reasonable.

It costs money for our colleges and universities to educate, conduct research, operate, innovate and grow. It costs money to provide a high quality educational experience. The nation, the states and the students themselves all benefit. As such, we should be able to establish a clear-eyed understanding through which adequate funding is provided at all levels based on the ideal of shared responsibility.

Robert L. Caret is chancellor of the University System of Maryland. He also has served as president of the University of Massachusetts system, president of San Jose State University and president of Towson University. His email is rcaret@usmd.edu; Twitter: @rcaret.

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