- Associated Press - Thursday, September 10, 2015

LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) - Nebraska lawmakers on Thursday began looking at ways to make college more affordable in response to the rising cost of tuition, fees, textbooks, and room and board.

College officials told the Legislature’s Education Committee that Nebraska schools have fared well compared to most other states, but still face intense competition from outside colleges and universities.

Nebraska’s share of college and university revenue paid by students has grown slower than the national average, and the tuition and fees charged by public institutions is among the lowest in the country, said Michael Baumgartner, executive director of Nebraska’s Coordinating Commission for Postsecondary Education.

But tuition and fees are still rising faster than the average family incomes, he said, and many students also pay thousands of dollars for textbooks, transportation, and room and board. Even with state, federal and private aid, Baumgartner said the net cost of attending a four-year university in Nebraska totals about $11,500 a year. At community colleges, the cost is about $7,000.

“It’s imperative to get students out as soon as they complete their coursework,” Baumgartner said. “Lingering costs money.”

Baumgartner said financial aid is particularly important for first-generation and low-income college students. A study of the 2011-12 school year in Nebraska found that 67 percent of first-time freshmen who received money through the Nebraska Opportunity Grant program were still enrolled or had graduated after four years. Of the students who were eligible but did not get an award, only 44 percent had done so.

Baumgartner said the commission is launching a new web-based tool in 2016 that will allow Nebraska high school guidance counselors to see which students have completed their applications for federal student aid.

Baumgartner also pointed to Indiana University, which reduced student debt levels by sending annual letters that told all student borrowers how much they owed and their estimated monthly payments and interest charges after graduation.

University of Nebraska President Hank Bounds said increases in state aid have helped keep tuition from rising too sharply, which allows students to graduate and join the workforce with less debt. In June, the university’s Board of Regents ended a two-year tuition freeze and approved a 1.75 percent increase for current school year and a 2.5 percent increase in 2016-17.

“Historically, the two have had a teeter-totter relationship,” Bounds said. “When one goes down, the other is forced up. So in order to maintain the quality you expect of us while also keeping tuition low, we depend on a stable investment from the state.”

Despite the recent increases, Bounds said university students graduate with the lowest average debt levels among the Big Ten schools.

Nebraska’s three state colleges maintain a “very lean” administrative staff to keep costs low, but each still relies on state aid, said Jodi Kupper, a vice chancellor for the system. Kupper said the colleges have reduced the number of credit hours needed to earn a bachelor’s degree in an effort to lower costs and taken steps to help more students transfer from community colleges.

Kupper said the state colleges are also replacing traditional textbooks with free “open educational resources” for students. Chadron State College has redesigned its campus library in 2011 to include a teaching and learning center for faculty to develop the materials. The change has helped more than 4,700 students save a combined $455,000, Kupper said.

“While these initiatives have impacted the overall cost, keeping tuition affordable is the most critical component,” she said.

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