Editorial: Colleges failing the affordability test

Published 12:00 am Thursday, December 4, 2008

North Carolina is doing a better job of preparing its students for college and seeing them graduate.
Now if only more of them could afford it.
A biennial report card released this week by the independent National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education gave the state a “B-minus” for college preparation and completion but an “F” in higher education affordability, as measured by how much of the average family’s income it takes to pay for college.
Now, both marks need context. The grade for preparation reflects the fact North Carolina has the nation’s highest rate of high school students taking upper-level math courses, and that’s good. But while completion rates have risen, only 58 percent of students finish college within six years, and only 47 percent of students at black colleges do so. That’s the minus.
And North Carolina may not have been in good company with the failing grade in affordability, but it sure was in a lot of company. In fact, California was the only state in the union that didn’t get an “F” on affordability, thanks to relatively inexpensive community colleges, the center said.
That students and their families in Virginia, South Carolina and all those other states don’t have it any better when paying for college will probably be cold comfort to North Carolina residents, however, especially in this time of economic recession.
That’s why it’s important that, even if they weren’t able to vote in last month’s presidential election, students hoping to attend a community college or four-year institution should take an interest in politics now. One of President-elect Barack Obama’s campaign pledges was to work for what he calls the American Opportunity Tax Credit. The credit would offer students $4,000 annually toward college tuition in exchange for 100 hours of community service. Obama’s Web site says that amount would “cover two-thirds of the cost of tuition at the average public college or university and make community college completely free for most students.”
With the economy headed deeper into the doldrums, such a measure might be tougher to sell now, even to an Obama-friendly Congress. But the timing, if it is enacted, couldn’t come at a better time for North Carolina students and their families. With slim pickings in the job market and the immediate outlook bleak, more students will probably be looking to attain at least an associate degree. More might even be signing up for those upper-level high school courses to give them an edge at four-year institutions.
Meanwhile, institutions of higher learning across the state ó from UNC’s flagship campus in Chapel Hill to Western Carolina in Cullowhee and N.C. Central in between ó have announced tuition increases next fall to offset shrinking allocations from Raleigh. More are considering increases.
Not everyone agrees with the grades. Conservative commentator John Hood, writing on the National Review’s Web site Thursday, called the center’s report “bunk,” partly because it doesn’t figure the difference in living expenses for young people in college and those in the work force and doesn’t factor in educational tax credits and government-subsidized student loans.
But students getting those loans are, in many cases, from lower-income families, who the center’s report says commit a much larger portion of their income to their children’s college expenses than do higher-income families.
And now many, such as the families of the 185 people losing their jobs to the Hanesbrands plant closing in China Grove, will have to look even harder for ways to come up with tuition and fees.
Surely the children of many of those workers are getting well prepared for higher education and are determined to see it through.
Let’s hope they can afford it.