- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 2, 2002

Tuition rates at public colleges and universities rose faster than family income over the past decade, according to a national report released yesterday.

Most states showed significant tuition increases over a 10-year period at two- and four-year public universities while median family income rose at a slower rate, according to the "Losing Ground" report released by the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education.

In Maryland over the past decade, annual tuition rates rose from $1,893 to $2,345 (24 percent) at public two-year schools and from $3,329 to $4,769 (43 percent) at public four-year schools. Median family income increased from $66,449 to $79,769 (20 percent) over the same period.

But in Virginia, annual tuition rates fell from $1,553 to $1,159 (25 percent) at public two-year schools and from $4,251 to $3,841 (10 percent) at public four-year schools. Median family income increased from $57,847 to $69,990 (21 percent) over the past decade.

Low-income families will find it more difficult to send their students to college if tuition continues to rise faster than their income, education observers say.

"We are really concerned about the affordability [of college] for the bottom 20 to 40 percent of the population," said Joni Finney, vice president of the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education. "If people don't go to college, it will hurt the economic development of the country."

"We are talking about pricing a product out of the reach of people who need it most," said Lawrence E. Gladieux, a Virginia-based education and public policy consultant.

The biggest increases were in Hawaii and Arkansas, where tuition costs at four-year public institutions rose by 79 percent and 77 percent, respectively. Median family income increased by 6 percent in Hawaii and by 2 percent in Arkansas.

Ms. Finney said North Carolina, Illinois and Utah were exemplary because tuition at community colleges remained unchanged even though it rose at public and private four-year universities. These states also have good need-based, financial aid programs, she said.

The report found that more students borrowed more money to pay for college than ever before, and that tuition rose most sharply in times of economic difficulty. During times like these, observers say, states often prioritize spending on programs like Medicaid over higher education.

"The problem for higher education is it has become residual in the state budgetary process. It gets what is left over after other needs are met," Mr. Gladieux said.

The report found that while state and federal financial-aid grants increased, the increases did not keep up with the rise in tuition costs.

Aid increases over the past decade focused more on middle- and upper-income students rather than low-income ones, said David W. Breneman, dean of the Curry School of Education at the University of Virginia. The report recommends that more aid be channeled to needy students.

Virginia did not see any increases in tuition costs since the mid-90s after a freeze on tuition implemented by Gov. James S. Gilmore III, a Republican. This year, Gov. Mark R. Warner, a Democrat, lifted the freeze, allowing universities to increase tuition by as much as 9 percent to compensate for budget cuts in education spending.

Most universities around the state, including the University of Virginia, have announced tuition increases during the past month.

Mr. Breneman said the increases are part of a predictable cycle. "When times get bad, states cut higher-education funding, and when the economy gets better, the governor steps in and introduces a freeze. It is kind of like a lottery, and not a very fair one if you happen to be in college," he said.

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