Tonawanda News

August 22, 2013

College costs are on the rise

By Jill Keppeler
The Tonawanda News

Tonawanda News — The cost of a college diploma just keeps climbing.

With President Obama planning to speak in Buffalo today about reducing the costs and improving the value of higher education for American middle-class students and their families, a look at local colleges and universities shows that those costs have indeed been on the rise.

Meanwhile, U.S. Census Bureau data indicate that the real median household income actually fell between 2010 and 2011 (from $51,144 to $50,502, according to American Community Survey data).

Christine McGinniss, a Town of Tonawanda mother with a college-aged son, said that while she expected costs to have increased, she was surprised at what she found when initially looking at college tuition for her son, Rob Karker, who is now enrolled in the engineering and science program at Erie Community College.

“I was extremely overwhelmed at what I thought tuition would be and what it actually is,” she said. “It’s extremely expensive.”

While they had saved for college, McGinniss said, it wasn’t enough to make it to a four-year degree without a good deal of debt, even with other schools offering scholarships. They chose the community college to stretch the money further. Karker, a graduate of Kenmore East, plans to eventually transfer to UB or the Rochester Institute of Technology to earn a biomedical engineering degree.

“We needed the money to go as far as possible,” McGinniss said. “We figured if he went to ECC, we thought we might be able to get away without all the student loans.”

The president has been turning an eye lately to issues of college cost and debt. According to The New York Times, in an email to supporters Tuesday, Obama mentioned that the average tuition at four-year colleges has tripled over the past three decades, and students who take out loans are left, on average, with $26,000 in debt — issues he is expected to address today in a speech at the University at Buffalo

UB has been recognized nationally as a “next-generation” university, and is one of Kiplinger’s best values in public colleges (No. 33 on a list of 100 schools released in January). However, like others, it is not immune to cost increases.

According to the National Center for Educational Statistics College Navigator database (run by the U.S. Department of Education), tuition and fees for in-state undergraduate UB students toatled $7,013 in 2009-10. The 2013-14 numbers from UB’s website indicate a total of $8,426 — an increase of $1,413, or about 20 percent. 

For out-of-state students, tuition and fees for UB undergrads were $14,913 in 2009-10, while 2013-14 numbers are $20,366. That adds up to an increase of $5,453, or about 37 percent.

From a broader perspective, in-state student tuition alone for UB was $1,350 back in 1988. It’s $5,870 today — a whopping 335 percent increase.

Comparatively, real median household income rose from $32,190 in 1988 to $50,502 in 2011 (the last year from which numbers are available). That’s an increase of $18,312 — about 57 percent.

“UB is an acknowledged leader among large public universities, recognized as an innovator in balancing quality and affordability. Nationally, our tuition rate is low and our graduation rate is high. We are committed to ensuring the support our students need to graduate on time,” wrote John DellaContrada, UB assistant vice president for media relations, in an email statement. “We are thrilled to be chosen to host President Obama for a discussion about issues very important to UB’s leadership: Ensuring that our U.S. system of higher education remains the best in the world, and ensuring all students have access to a superb education at a world-class institution like UB.”

Public versus private

For Buffalo State students, tuition and fees amounted to $6,007 in 2009-10 for in-state undergrads. By 2013-14, according to the Buff State website, tuition and fees are listed as $7,022, an increase of $1,015 or about 17 percent. For out-of-state undergrads, 2009-10 tuition and fees were $13,907, according to NCES. By 2013-14, they’d risen to $16,472, an increase of $2,565 or about 18 percent.

According to a recent story by the Associated Press, over the past five years, the average tuition sticker price at U.S. public four-year colleges is up 27 percent beyond overall inflation.

While local private colleges are pricier as a whole, their increases look a bit more level. Canisius College’s tuition and fees have increased from $29,512 in 2009-10 to $32,030 in 2012-13, a jump of $2,518, or about 9 percent. For Niagara University, those costs have climbed from $24,700 in 2009-10 to $27,230, an increase of $2,530 or about 10 percent.

The tuition at private schools was up 13 percent beyond overall inflation over the past five years adjusted for inflation, according to the AP story.

Community college options

On another side of the spectrum, Western New York is also home to two public community colleges, which offer two-year degrees and a variety of other programs.

Recently, the U.S. Department of Education’s College Affordability and Transparency Center included Erie Community College on its annual list of the most affordable community colleges in the country, using its net price of $3,342, the cost of a year’s attendance after considering all grants and scholarship aid.

The NCES indicates that for ECC, in-state students paid $3,640 for tuition and fees in 2009-10 and $4,444 in 2012-13, for an increase of $804, or 22 percent. 

However, ECC itself currently uses the figure of $3,995 for in-state student tuition and fees per year. It was unclear if the NCES numbers included additional fees.

As a SUNY community college, ECC President Jack Quinn said, ECC is funded under a special formula by state law. About a third of the money is supposed to originate from the state, a third from the county that sponsors the college and a third is supposed to come from student tuition.

In practice, it doesn’t quite work out that way, he said. 

“For years, long before Jack Quinn got here, the state of New York has not lived up to their percentage,” he said. And while Erie County is a good partner in other ways, it has not increased its amount in seven years, he said. “Today, the students at ECC will pick up about 51 percent of the tuition tab.”

That said, Quinn lauded ECC’s inclusion on the most-affordable-colleges list. The school was the only public community college in the state to make the list, which tracks the net prices of schools around the country. 

“We believe we’re the best education value in western New York state, quality education at an affordable price,” he said. “We are the best bargain around.”

Not only do the percentages carried by students increase, but there are other factors in tuition increases as well. Colleges must keep up with their technology, especially ones such as ECC with many technical programs, Quinn said.

“We must be up-to-date with the equipment, whether it’s auto technology, whether it’s nursing ... or nanotechnology,” he said. “Those are really, really technology-sensitive.”

If the college doesn’t have the equipment its graduates would use at a job site, those graduates may not get jobs, Quinn said.

“Staying current with technology and equipment is something we’re always thinking about,” he said.

For Niagara County Community College, in-state students paid $3,750 in 2009-10 and $4,040 in 2012-13, an increase of $290, or about 8 percent. However, for out-of-state students, tuition and fees were $7,158 in 2009-10 and $9,584 in 2012-13, an increase of $2,426, or about 34 percent.

The Associated Press has reported that tuition and fees at community colleges are up 24 percent beyond overall inflation over the past five years, according to the College Board.

Whatever the price, college costs are something that families of most income levels must now consider well before high school — or even birth.

Jeff Floff of Kenmore, who is entering his senior year at Buffalo State College as an English major, said he’s heard nightmare stories about student debt from friends. He admits he’s been fortunate: His parents have been able to save for his college before he was born, more than 20 years.

“I was definitely very lucky,” he said, “and I had very smart parents.”

ON THE NET * U.S. Department of Education's National Center for Education Statistics: * NCES College Navigator: * Department of Education College Affordability and Transparency Center: