Tuition increase

In the last 10 years, the average tuition at four-year public universities in Alabama has risen 69.8 percent. That’s neither a mathematical error nor a typo. The financial pain of earning a four-year college degree in our state is both outrageous and unsustainable over the long haul.

State legislators and university administrators should be ashamed for the role they play in this assault on the affordability — or lack thereof — of a college degree in Alabama, a largely rural state beset with some of the nation’s worst pockets of poverty. That enrollment at some of our universities has risen proves the willingness of students and their families to assume unreasonable amounts of debt in their quest for education and future employment.

This isn’t our problem alone, mind you. It’s a national issue detailed in a new report from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP) in Washington. Released this week, the report makes it clear that declining affordability of college in a preponderance of states is out of control. And the largest culprit are the states themselves.

The CBPP report shows that overall state funding for public two- and four-year colleges was more than $7 billion (adjusted for inflation) below its 2008 level in the most recently completed school year. History proves that states reflexively slash higher-education funding during lean times, and the Great Recession of the previous decade represented the worst economic turbulence of this generation. States did as they’ve always done — slashed higher-ed contributions (16 percent nationally in the last decade). And in most cases, those contributions haven’t returned in kind.

Since the recession, Alabama state government has cut appropriations to public colleges and universities by $4,290 per student, or 34.6 percent — the third-worst dollar amount in the nation and the fifth-worst reduction by percentage. That induces an evil trickle-down effect that flows from Montgomery to the university trustee boards, who vote on tuition rates, to the students and their families, who, unlike lawmakers and trustees, are stuck. Even with the numerous forms of financial aid, college debt for American students who earned bachelor’s degrees at four-year schools increased 26 percent since the recession.

We repeat, this is unsustainable. Though U.S. unemployment rates have fallen, wages haven’t risen. Wage stagnation is rampant. Meanwhile, American families are being saddled with ever-increasing tuition bills and recent graduates are facing escalating amounts of college debt. That double whammy is even worse for minorities and low-income students.

We’ve long fretted about this reprehensible development in Alabama, and it seems our worst fears are coming true. Students at our state’s public universities aren’t seeking undeserved free rides. They’re seeking fair treatment. Alabamians should be mortified that feckless lawmakers won’t find new revenue streams to properly fund higher-ed and trustee boards continue to pass this pain to students.