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Tuition up across the nation
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As in many areas, the past few years have dealt multiple blows nationwide to centers of higher learning. First, enrollment has increased as the children of baby boomers, as well as those who are unemployed or underemployed, turned to universities, colleges and technical schools to give them an advantage in the job market.

Second, state budgets nationwide are finding it difficult to keep up with rising costs and enrollment trends. So, a percentage of the total cost being paid by state governments has been slipping. The Government Accountability Office reports that state and local appropriations have decreased nationwide between 6 percent and 65 percent.

Finally, charitable giving to higher learning institutions has fallen due to less disposable income from economic conditions. These donations are important for institutions because it allows them to cover scholarships and other costs not covered by state appropriations or tuition. Because of these issues, leaders nationwide have begun discussing the affordability and role of higher education in America.

This week we will examine the affordability of higher education in Georgia.

Enrollment growth and HOPE coverage
As we have tracked in this column over the past few years, Georgia has tried to maintain its commitment to keeping college affordable.  The HOPE scholarship, funded by lottery revenues transferred to the state, was able to pay full tuition for students who maintained a 3.0 GPA at a state school.  HOPE is the only merit-based scholarship nationally on this scale.  But, from 2008 to 2011, technical schools had grown enrollment 47 percent while public colleges and universities saw growth of 18 percent.

Lottery revenue growth is significantly lower than increasing tuition costs and growing enrollment, so reserves were utilized to keep pace. When HB 326 was passed in 2011, it was seen as the only way to keep the program solvent.

While HOPE is not as generous as it was before, it is still merit based and provides many benefits. At the close of this fiscal year, the Georgia Student Finance Commission estimates that over 1.5 million students have received the HOPE scholarship since the inception of the program. This past fiscal year, approximately 219,000 students received a HOPE program award. Around 12,000 of these recipients were for the Zell Miller Scholarship and will receive a lottery-funded scholarship covering full tuition as long as recipients continue to meet requirements.

Tuition increases in Georgia compared to other state schools
The University System of Georgia, which governs and services all of Georgia’s public postsecondary institutions, takes pride in the nationally competitive, comparatively low tuition the state’s universities and colleges charge. Like the rest of the nation, tuition increased throughout institutions in the University System of Georgia for the 2013 fiscal year. Tuition at research universities saw increases between 2.44 percent to 5.65 percent. Regional universities, state universities, state colleges, and two-year colleges all had an average increase of 2.4 percent.

This might not be welcome news to students and parents, but Georgia is in a better situation than most states. A survey of similar non-Georgia universities shows higher increases. The University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, for example, will have a 8.86 percent increase in tuition and mandatory fees for the FY2013 school year, while Florida State University will increase by 10.33 percent. Both of these can be considered research universities and compared to Georgia Tech, UGA, Georgia Regents University and Georgia State University.

Similar regional universities such as the University of Central Florida and Western Carolina had tuition and mandatory fee increases of 3.84 percent and 7.76 percent respectively, higher than Georgia Southern University and Valdosta State University, which saw an increase of 1.75 percent in tuition and mandatory fees.

According to the Southern Regional Education Board (SREB), which tracks and coordinates education policy for 16 Southern states, Georgia ranked 10th out of 16 in FY11 for tuition and mandatory fees at public four-year colleges and universities.Georgia’s median tuition and fees was $5,919 and below the SREB median of $6,203.  The College Board ranked Georgia 16th nationally in lowest average in-state tuition with the national average at $8,043 for the 2010-11 school year.

Georgia student debt compared nationally
Finally on the topic of affordability is the subject of student debt. This has garnered significant national attention with Pell Grants and other student aid being debated.

According to the Institute of College Access and Success, Georgia college seniors who graduated in 2010 had an average debt of $18,888 while the national average was $25,250. Georgia’s average ranks the state 44th in the nation for student loan debt. Around 55 percent of Georgia students borrow to pay for school, ranking the state 33rd in the nation for proportion of students with debt. This low ranking of debt across the nation can be attributed to low tuition and fee rates at Georgia’s public postsecondary institutions in comparison to the rest of the nation and to the HOPE Scholarship.As schools across the nation increase their tuition at rates higher than Georgia, it is likely that we will remain on the lower end of rankings for average student loan debt.

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