The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

Editorials

May 14, 2014

Feeling the pinch

The value we place on Concord University as a contributor to our community in southern West Virginia both academically and culturally is something we have spoken about often.

The school in Athens turns out well-rounded and capable graduates in dozens of fields. So our reaction was one of concern after hearing the announcement by the school’s Board of Governors that it is raising tuition and fees by 5 percent, as well as a one-time $60 increase in the special equity fee and a 4 percent increase in room and board.

For in-state students, this will represent a $210 per semester hike in tuition, and $77 and $74 increases in housing and dining, to an average of $3,211 per semester. Out-of-state students will see a proportionately larger increase, which raises the per-semester costs to an average of $7,059. Raising tuition has, in the past, been an easy way out for higher education institutions, banking on the value of that college degree to reassure students and their parents that the investment is worth it. Not all colleges are convinced that is the case these days.

The University of Charleston, for example, cut tuition by 22 percent in 2012 due to concerns about losing a swath of students whose families were too well-off for free federal financial aid, but not that well-off that students could avoid going deeply into debt.

Other colleges have done likewise, including Seton Hall, Duquesne and Brooklyn Law School.  Still other schools have instituted tuition freezes, including the University of Evansville, Urbana University and Indiana University-Bloomington.

Concord’s funding from the state was reduced by $1.2 million, which Dr. Charles Becker, vice president for business and finance, cited as a reason for the tuition hike.

The state of West Virginia, like Concord, has its own budgetary shortfall issues.

People, Becker said, are “feeling the pinch” of a poor national economy.

We remain unconvinced that the answer to families “feeling the pinch” is to charge them more.

For the past several years there has been talk of a higher-education bubble, where the cost of a college degree rises to a point where the debt incurred and the years to pay it off make that degree a lot less attractive.

In West Virginia, we have always seen higher education as a gateway to a better life that enhances our communities in any number of ways. We still think that. But there is a cautionary tale to this story.

Colleges and universities, like other institutions, simply must do a better job of managing their finances as well as finding creative ways to control cost. And they must take a cold assessment of their degree programs to ensure what they are offering students is of real and lasting value. Because we think the days of colleges and universities dumping budgetary shortfalls on students and their parents in the form of tuition increases are nearing an end.

How bad is the student debt situation? The Fed in New York Tuesday released its report on household debt for the first quarter of 2014. Student debt in the United States is $1.11 trillion, second only to mortgage debt at $8.17 trillion. That student debt represents a $125 billion increase over 2013. And, ominously, of that debt load, 11.5 percent is in default.

When something can’t go on forever, it won’t.

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