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The high cost of higher education: Part 1

03/12/2014

It would be easier to find a needle in a haystack then to pinpoint the exact problem in higher education funding. No one knows precisely how a college education got so expensive, but every year, colleges and universities tick up their tuition and fees like time stacks years upon the living. No one knows why it has to happen, but they know it’s going to.

Twenty-four-year-old Jacob Bramlett is a freshman at Jacksonville State University. In his first year, he already has $9,000 in student loan debt. He worries that he will spend the rest of his life paying off his student loans.

Like his mother.

“My mother paid back her loans till the day she died,” says Bramlett. “She was in debt forever and every time she filed income tax they took her money [and] put it toward the loans. She struggled with her loans for the remainder of her life, and I’m pretty sure I’ll probably be paying on the rest of my life too.”

Bramlett is a carefree individual who keeps on rolling when life throws a punch. The simple necessities are all it takes to make Bramlett happy and he is grateful for every day that comes with a full belly and a roof over his head. But he worries about what a future in the stranglehold of student loan debt could bring.

During the years most teenagers spend in high school, Bramlett spent his days caring for his ailing mother who suffered from diabetes, high blood pressure, and high cholesterol, among other illnesses and complications.

His mother struggled to support herself, Bramlett, and his sister on the $215 per month she received in Welfare benefits. Despite it all, they were happy. They had each other.

As soon as Bramlett turned 16 he got his G.E.D. The following year in 2007, he applied to JSU and was accepted, but didn’t enroll. He had no way to pay for a college education.

In 2009, Bramlett’s mother had complications with the side effects of her prescribed medications and suffered a stroke. Her health was a constant concern after that.

“My mother passed away due to kidney failure on April 17th, 2011,” said Bramlett, the date stamped so vividly in his mind that he recalls it with no hesitation.

After his mother’s death, Bramlett focused on trying to begin his college education. Bramlett decided to pursue a degree in Ecology and to dedicate his life to heal the earth he loved. He had his acceptance letter and he had his major.

But financial aid barred his way.

“I was on my own, not knowing what to do, not knowing how I was going to pay for it, and I didn’t really understand the financial aid process,” said Bramlett.

Frustrated by toiling through the red tape of financial aid, Bramlett put off his college education until the following year when he decided to “jump in and tackle it.”

Bramlett enrolled at JSU in the fall of 2013 after qualifying for a full Federal Pell Grant. However, the Pell Grant was not enough to pay for Bramlett’s college education. Bramlett had to turn to student loans to cover the cost.

Trust Fund Failure

In the state of Alabama, colleges and universities are funded in part by the Education Trust Fund (ETF).

According to the Executive Budget Office for the Alabama State Legislature, the ETF is collected through eleven different tax sources including income and sales tax.

The ETF funds K-12 and institutions of Higher Education in Alabama and is the largest fund in the state. From the ETF, 26 percent is allotted to Higher Education.

“[The State of Alabama has] inadequately funded college education at a proper level and in order to maintain a [competitive] level of education, they keep increasing tuition. That’s the fault of the legislature. We have to realize that higher education is as important as K-12,” said Alabama State Representative John W. Rogers Jr., a member of the Ways and Means Education committee and the Higher Education Appropriations sub-committee.

JSU’s Acting V.P. of Administrative and Business Affairs Allyson Barker also points to a lack of state funding as the cause of tuition inflation.

“There’s a direct correlation, in my opinion, with the loss of funding from state appropriations and an increase in tuition,” said Barker. “It used to be that we were state funded and now it’s more of assistance, because it’s dropped a lot. Even since 2008, it’s dropped between 25 and 30 percent.”

JSU now receives less than 35 percent of its Education and General Expense budget from the ETF. Federal grants, alumni donations, and student tuition and fees make up the rest.

Since 2008, the ETF fell from a high $6.7 billion to $5.4 billion in 2013, amounting to a 20 percent decline in funding.

Due to the ETF’s dependence on tax sources to cover the tab, the ETF was hit heavily with the recession in 2007 and has yet to recover.

Cities of Their Own

The Executive Director of the Alabama Commission on Higher Education (ACHE) says that cuts in the ETF are not the only thing that counts for the inflation in college tuition.

According to Fitch, colleges and universities are like cities of their own. Institutions of Higher Education have their own administration and governing systems, road crews, maintenance staff, police forces, employees, and citizens, A.K.A. students.

“[When] you’re operating within a city and you see significant cuts, if you want support for that city, you either have to raise taxes or adjust prices or charge for special services or increase fees,” said Fitch.

According to Fitch, the larger a university is the more services that university needs to offer. Dormitories, cafeterias, and bus services for non-local students become mandatory to stay competitive. Health service, career services, and campus security become obligatory. Staying up-to-date with technology becomes crucial to making sure that students are prepared for careers in a workforce that needs to know how to use the latest device in a technological society.

“There’s a lot of variables,” said Fitch. “I wish there was just one. If there was just one thing to say, ‘if we could fix this then this could happen’...but we can’t because of the number of variables that impact the institutions.”

The complications of running at such a large scale and the constant struggle to remain competitive add to the need for new revenue.

This need for new funds is covered by increases in tuition, and in turn student loans and Federal Pell Grants cover the students’ inability to pay their college education.

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