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Education Series: Making College Affordable in Ohio

Tuesday, September 26, 2006 at 4:11 PM

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Many analysts looking for answers to Ohio's lagging economy say you don't need to look much farther than the state's low number of college graduates. In a recent survey, Ohio ranked 38th in the nation for adults with a bachelor's degree or higher. Education experts say there are a lot of reasons for that, but the biggest one they cite is cost. As part our focus on education in Ohio, ideastream's Karen Schaefer reports that just how to make college more affordable remains an issue for debate.

See Also: All Education Series reports

Craig Kavak: I don’t have the money to pay for college and my parents are going to help, but I don’t know how much they could really pay.

Parma High School Senior Craig Kavak sometimes jokes the only way he’ll get to college is if he wins the lottery. He expects he’ll have to take out student loans and he’s worried, because he’s heard from some of his teachers that they’re still paying off their college debts.

Craig Kavak: I don’t want to have to 15 years from now, if I have a family, I don’t want to have to have on my weekly bills, my grocery list and my student loans. It’s, like, that scares me.

In its’ 2006 national report card, the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education gave Ohio an “F” for affordability. In fact, Ohio’s public four-year colleges now cost 42% of the average family’s paycheck, up from 28% just over a decade ago. Karin Fischer, who covers the issue for the Chronicle of Higher Education, says while Ohio is suffering more than many other states, that statistic is part of a national trend.

Karin Fischer: State support really isn’t holding steady, it’s not keeping up with the cost of tuition. Tuition is increasing at a pace much more rapidly than people’s incomes are. And then you’re left with this whole gap and people are asking, how are we going to pay? And financial aid programs aren’t keeping up either.

John Tafel is a vice chancellor with Ohio’s Board of Regents, which oversees higher education in the state. He says the Regents have instituted a number of new scholarship initiatives in recent years to try to bridge the gap.

John Tafel: We also have from the General Assembly, the Ohio College Opportunity Grant, which increases the amount of dollars that are available through our scholarships and grants office here. We’re also working with other providers to raise scholarship dollars for students.

But Tafel admits that it isn’t enough. Many others agree, including backers of Issue 3, which voters will decide this November. It’s a proposal to dramatically increase scholarship funding in the state through a tax on gambling. Such efforts have been lauded in other states, most notably Georgia. Linda Seifkas is a spokesperson for the Learn and Earn campaign.

Linda Seifkas: As the program begins, it’s scaled to make sure we don’t open the floodgates and deplete all of the money. So during the first 12 years, the top 5% of kids in Ohio will get the full tuition assistance. And then at the end of 12 years, we’ll be able to have everyone in the program.

But even if revenue estimates of $852 million a year for college tuition grants are accurate, some educators believe scholarships aren’t the best answer. Luis Proenza, president of the University of Akron, is someone who believes that engaging the state legislature to make greater investments is key.

Luis Proenza: I’m encouraged that in the last several months the legislature is beginning to call this the year of higher education reform. Now I’m not sure that anybody knows what that means, but the fact that they are putting higher education on their radar screen, considering it a priority for this biennium is an important sign.

Proenza and others are also hoping for leadership from Ohio’s next governor. Republican candidate Ken Blackwell has advanced a voucher system to fix the college affordability problem. His opponent, Democrat Ted Strickland, proposes tuition guarantees for students. Both candidates have also suggested there may be ways for universities to reduce their costs. Charles Hickman, president of the Northeast Ohio Coalition for Higher Education, says there are a number of ways to generate savings.

Charles Hickman: Especially in graduate programming where it’s very expensive. If there are ways for two or even multiple universities or colleges in Ohio to partner to offer a joint degree or a degree that draws on faculty from several schools, we can perhaps reduce or at least contain growth in tuition and fees for students.

Hickman’s solution is one he says has worked well in other states and is already being tried at two Ohio institutions, the University of Akron and Kent State University.

Ohio’s college affordability problem is shared across the nation. Later this month, the federal commission on higher education is due out with a new report Ohio education leaders are hoping will point the way to new federal initiatives that could also help make college more affordable. Karen Schaefer, 90.3.

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