That harsh statement isn’t wholly accurate. Having the chance to earn a college degree is a privilege. In most cases, the educational payoff is impossible to discount.
Higher education equals opportunity.
But when does the cost override everything else in this discussion?
Tuesday’s Star carried a front-page story documenting the latest tuition increase at Jacksonville State University, Calhoun County’s regional university that’s caught in the swirl of price hikes that stem largely from state government’s cuts to higher education and refusal to raise new revenue.
In this context, JSU’s recent record is discomforting. Tuition this fall is going up nearly 4 percent — a convenient match to the JSU’s 4 percent drop in state-government funding.
Last year, JSU’s Board of Trustees raised tuition 12.8 percent. The 2010 increase was 8.6 percent. The 2009 increase was 9.47 percent.
Tuition at JSU has increased nearly 40 percent in four years.
Consider this no condemnation of JSU — which, mind you, has long prided itself on keeping tuition affordable. In this regard, JSU is no different from Alabama or Auburn or Troy or most other universities in this state: Their tuition rates are skyrocketing in response to the state Legislature’s budgets during the aftermath of the Great Recession.
So, for now, get off JSU’s back.
Nevertheless, consider these facts: In 2010, U.S. graduating seniors had a record-high average of $25,250 in student debt — a 5.2 percent increase from the year before and the highest amount recorded in U.S. history, according to the Project on Student Debt, a nonprofit advocacy group. (Obviously, Pell Grants and other similar options do not cover enough U.S. students to make a dent in this debt.)
This trend has all kinds of depressing markers. For the first time in the nation’s history, student-loan debt has surpassed credit-card debt. In the 2009-10 school year, 56 percent of public-university students had loans. Those figures, and others, are why the Obama administration has proposed changes to how soon college graduates are expected to pay off their college debts.
Today, however, none of that is our point.
Statewide, Alabama has a terrible record with affordability of a college education. Studies in recent years have consistently ranked Alabama among the states with the fewest students who can afford a four-year degree. Even in good years, our state’s students struggle to pay tuition without racking up mountains of debt.
Montgomery hardly listens to anything these days. Lawmakers’ ears are clogged with partisanship. We’d never suggest anarchy, but we wouldn’t blame Alabama students if they felt kinship with students in the Canadian province of Quebec, which has had more than 100 consecutive days of protests over tuition increases.
This trickle-down effect is teaching Alabama’s college students a fact of life. The Legislature does what it wants, university trustees do the same, and those at the bottom — the students — suffer the consequences.