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Editorial: College affordability issue warrants attention

Sep. 28, 2012 @ 12:31 AM

More people are attending college, a positive development for both them and the nation's economy.

Most are looking to boost their knowledge and skills to enhance their prospects of landing a good-paying job. And in the aftermath of the recent recession, with the job market continuing to be weak, many are having trouble finding employment so they turn to higher education to make themselves more marketable to employers.

Coupled with that, they are receiving plenty of encouragement from colleges, universities and those involved in economic development. The colleges and universities want to boost enrollments to carry out their missions, but also need growing enrollment to sustain them financially. And people concerned with the state's and nation's economic health argue that a better educated workforce is needed to compete economically. In West Virginia, for example, officials note that the state needs an additional 20,000 college graduates by 2018 just to maintain the current workforce.

But the growing college-going population also comes with a cost. An analysis released this week by the Pew Research Center shows that student debt now touches a record number of U.S. households, almost one in every five. The study found that 19 percent of U.S. households had college debt in 2010, twice the percentage from 1989 and up from 15 percent from just three years earlier, according to a report by The Associated Press.

Not only do more households have college debt, the amount of debt also has grown. The average was $26,682 in 2010, a 14 percent increase from 2007, the Pew study found.

One factor in all this is the rising cost of higher education, driven by increases in tuition and fees, which puts the focus on the question of college affordability.

Clearly, it is becoming less affordable every year.

That should give pause to policy makers, not only at the colleges and universities but also at the state government level.

Marshall University President Stephen J. Kopp touched on some of the issues on Tuesday during his annual State of the University address. Among the demands facing Marshall as well as other universities is the call for a stronger effort in helping students succeed, which means programs that no doubt add to a university's costs.

Meanwhile, public universities and colleges are facing what Kopp predicted would be a decades-long trend of privatization. Translation: Less funding support from the state and federal governments. For the next budget year, state leaders already have said the state's higher education institutions can expect 7.5 percent less money. That just puts more pressure on the institutions to raise tuition and fees in order to maintain their educational programs.

As Kopp noted, that means Marshall and other institutions will need to place even more emphasis on being efficient and using the most effective ways to deliver instruction.

We encourage them to work hard on those aspects and work diligently to control their costs. But we also remind the state's government leaders that reducing support to colleges and universities exacts other costs that many households are feeling all too well. And the goal of better educating the state's workforce could take a hit if the cost of higher education goes beyond the grasp of more people.



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