Ken Hare In Depth: Ala. tuition costs far outstrip inflation

MONTGOMERY, AL (WSFA) - When Guy Bailey held his first official press conference as president of the University of Alabama recently, he spoke of a concern about the rising costs of tuition and promised, "We will do everything in our power to keep our costs under control."

Alabama parents with children approaching college age should hope that is a commitment all public college presidents in the state make and keep. Over the past decade, tuition costs at Alabama's 14 public four-year colleges have far outstripped not only inflation, but also the relatively slow annual increases in the state's family incomes.

Gregory Fitch, director of the Alabama Commission on Higher Education, told me that the combination of a variety of factors -- higher tuition, changes in federal student aid, reductions in state and federal revenues for colleges -- likely would make college affordability a "front burner" issue for the presidents of Alabama's public colleges.

Fitch emphasized that all of the presidents already are concerned about rising college costs. While that may well be true, such concerns haven't translated into limits on tuition.

An analysis of numbers maintained by the Alabama Commission on Higher Education show that since the 2001-2002 academic year, the median tuition at Alabama's public four-year colleges has risen by 153 percent. Meanwhile, the inflation rate during that same period rose by just 29.4 percent.

While the largest percentage increases were at the state's flagship universities -- the University of Alabama and Auburn University -- the trend toward tuition hikes that are much greater than inflation holds true for all 14 of the public four-year universities.

Consider, for instance, what would have happened to tuition costs at the universities if the tuition that existed in 2001 had risen at just the rate of inflation:

At the University of Alabama, tuition in 2001 was $3,292. If it had risen at the rate of inflation, it would be about $4,261 this year. But the actual tuition in 2012 is $9,200.

At Auburn University, tuition in 2001 was $3,380. If it had risen at the rate of inflation, it would be about $4,375 this year. But the actual tuition in 2012 is $9,446.

At Alabama State University, 2001 tuition was $2,904 (the lowest of any of the public four-year colleges at that time). If it had risen at the rate of inflation, it would be about $3,759. Instead, the actual tuition is $7,932.

At Auburn University Montgomery, 2001 tuition was $3,440. At the rate of inflation, it would have been $4,453 this year. But the actual tuition for 2012 is $8,150.

At the University of Alabama Huntsville, 2001 tuition was $3,536. Increasing at the inflation rate would have brought it to $4,577. Instead, actual tuition in 2012 is $8,794.

What happens when public university tuition increases in Alabama are compared to increases in family incomes in the state? Consider:

The median household income in Alabama in 2001 was $35,160. By 2010, the median household income in the state was $40,976. In 2001, the median tuition for Alabama's public four-year colleges was $3,261. If tuition had risen at the same rate as household incomes in the state, it would have been $3,800 in 2010. Instead, the actual median tuition for the state's public four-year colleges was $8,275.

In fairness, it must be pointed out that Alabama's public universities are far from being alone in facing an issue of college affordability. The College Board reports that that tuition and fees at four-year public universities nationally have increased about 150 percent since 1990.

Those increases are causing greater numbers of graduates to leave college in debt. Nationally, the Project on Student Debt reports that "that two-thirds of college seniors who graduated in 2010 had student loan debt," with an average of $25,250 for those with debt.

It's not quite that bad in Alabama -- yet. But it's bad enough. The Project on Student Debt estimates that in 2010, about 56 percent of Alabama college graduates left college in debt, with an average debt of $24,821.

And it's not just tuition that's the culprit in the issue of college affordability. The length of time it takes to graduate in many fields is increasing as well, which also pushes up overall college costs.

A major factor in college costs in Alabama in recent years is the decline in state appropriations for public colleges. However, it should be noted that tuition at Alabama's public universities was outstripping the income increases for average Alabamians even when state appropriations were high.

As the Alabama economy improves, it is crucial that the Legislature seek to increase appropriations to public colleges.  But in order to address college affordability, at least some of that growth in revenue for higher education should come in the form of student assistance and not all of it as a direct appropriation.

College affordability is a complicated issue, some of which is outside the control of college administrators. To really bring the growth of college costs back into line with the ability of the average Alabama family to send their children to a public university would require that the issue become a priority for legislators, college administrators, other key public officials and the public as well.

But unless the issue truly reaches the "front burner" for each of these groups, we risk pricing a public college education out of the financial reach of many of the Alabama families whose taxes help support these institutions.

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