UA Works Hard on Access and Affordability

By Monique Musick

The University of Alaska’s tuition rate for the Academic Year 2014-2015 will be on the Board of Regents’ agenda when it meets in September.

But it won’t be the first time such a discussion has occurred among top leaders at the university. Tuition conversations have been held throughout the campuses among the chancellors and president’s cabinet, Coalition of Student Leaders, the UA budget office and the Tuition Task Force all year long. In the end, the goal is to balance high quality education with cost and accessibility for UA students.

A Balancing Act

“It’s a real balancing act setting up tuition at a public institution,” explains Associate Vice President of Student and Enrollment Services Saichi Oba. “It’s the iron triangle of education funding. You cannot move one point without affecting the other points—it’s iron, not rubber. The three points are cost, access and quality. Anything you do to any one corner affects the other. If you lower costs, you may increase accessibility but you may sacrifice quality. If you increase cost, you can fund higher quality programs but you end up limiting accessibility. That’s what the whole tuition dynamic is like in a public institution.”

Keeping a Low Tuition Profile

In Alaska, funding for higher education comes largely from the State of Alaska, followed by university generated revenue, including student tuition and fees. Federal funding makes up a piece as well.  Figures from UA’s Institutional Data and Analysis show that in FY12, student tuition and fees comprised less than 15 percent of the total revenue necessary to operate the university. President Gamble has held a firm line since he arrived three years ago to limit the amount requested from students and instead focus on cost-containment measures and strategic program management.

Last year’s approved 2 percent tuition increase (which goes into effect this academic year) was the lowest in over a decade. During the mid-2000s, rates increased by as much as 10 percent a year. The president at the time, Mark Hamilton, sought to bring tuition rates more in line with WICHE and national averages, but even with those increases UA’s tuition remains one of the lowest in the nation.

The Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education (WICHE) has been tracking trends in higher education in 15 Western states since 1953. Their records show that currently only four state institutions—Wyoming, New Mexico, Utah and Montana—have lower tuition than UA, with all 10 other western state institutions costing more.

Alaska students benefit from strong support from the Alaska State Legislature. Most other Western states have seen double-digit cuts in funding over the past five years, while Alaska has enjoyed a 20 percent increase in funding during that same period. Such support is vital in helping UA deliver a quality education at affordable rates. 

Funding Higher Education

The amount of financial aid available to students—loans, grants, scholarships, tuition waivers, work study and athletic scholarships—has increased 45.3 percent since 2007-2008. The great news is that much of that increase has been in state and federal grant programs, which do not have to be repaid. In 2011-12, more than $141 million in financial aid was distributed to students in the UA system.

University of Alaska students graduate with an average debt load of approximately $24,000, lower than the national average. The average starting salary for recent UA graduates is $38,000 to $40,000 annually. The return on investment is high and students who are able to attend full-time and graduate and enter the workforce in four or five years enjoy a substantial savings and expanded earnings potential sooner than students who take longer to complete their degrees.

“If you asked students who graduated five years ago how they are doing, most of them are going to say they are doing really well. Especially those students that have been in their position for five years. Education is a long-term payback with long-term benefits,” said Oba. 

Debt Decisions

A college education is an investment, and personal choices play a large part in how affordable it is and how much debt is acquired. Choosing where to attend school makes a huge difference. There are 149 colleges nationwide, including Ivy League and private colleges, which cost $50,000 or more a year. By comparison the average full-time UA student pays $5,448 in tuition and fees. The average resident tuition at public institutions is just below $9,000 nationwide.

Expenses outside school play a big factor as well. Choices students make on housing, transportation, food and entertainment all affect spending levels, and potential debt. Many students make sacrifices in order to pay for a full-time education.

“Whenever you bring up the term 'affordability,' most people gravitate to the cost side of things, not 'how do I reshape my life to make this affordable?' Some people have a lot of flexibility in that area; some people have none,” said Oba.

Return on Investment

The sacrifice and savings is more than paid back through the value of achieving a higher education. Surveys by the College Board show that college-educated people not only tend to have higher earnings than people without degrees, they are also more likely to have health and retirement benefits with their jobs, and they are far less likely to be unemployed.

And having a degree is not just about economic advantages. People with college degrees are more likely to be satisfied with their jobs. One of the authors of that report, economist Sandy Baum, says there is substantial evidence that going to college causes people to do better in life.

“In the end, so much of what matters is you,” Oba said. “Your degree is what you show the world. The rest of it is up to you and what you do with your degree, talent and effort.”

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