WASHINGTON – Low-income college students continue to suffer most from tuition increases averaging 5 percent in Maryland and financial aid that fails to keep pace with higher education prices, according to a report released Tuesday by the College Board.
Nationally, financial aid per student inched up 3 percent in the 2004-2005 year, not enough to keep pace with the rising cost of tuition, the report said.
“We have deserving students who are kept out of college or have difficulty completing their degree because of lack of money,” said College Board President Gaston Caperton.
In Maryland, four-year public schools saw tuition rise an average of $310, or 5 percent, for this school year to a total average tuition of $6,790. Private four-year institution tuition rose an average of 6 percent, or $1,160, to $21,590. Two-year community colleges cost an average of $120, or 4 percent, more for a total of $2,990.
Nationally, tuition increases hovered between about 5.5 and 7 percent.
While tuition growth slowed this year compared to the previous two years, when double-digit increases at colleges were common, College Board policy analyst Sandy Baum was quick to caution even a small increase can affect cash-strapped students with poor access to financial resources.
“(Financial aid is) not increasing fast enough to keep up with stagnating family incomes and rising college prices,” she said.
The report shows that nearly $129 billion was spent on student aid — which includes federal loans, tax breaks and federal and state grants — in the 2004-2005 school year, the latest year figures were available, a $10 billion increase over the previous year.
But students are increasingly turning to non-governmental lenders, borrowing $14 billion collectively last year alone, as access to financial aid remained challenging.
For example, while the number of Pell Grants — debt-free federal assistance that low-income students often depend on — increased by 3 percent, the dollar value declined for the second consecutive year. Nationally this year, 5.3 million students received Pell Grants averaging $2,469, while last year 5.1 million students received an average of $2,473.
A disproportionate number of scholarships in Maryland went to students based on merit, rather than need, resulting in low-income students racking up 25 percent more debt than average students, said William Kirwan, chancellor of the University System of Maryland, which oversees the state’s 13 public universities.
To reverse that trend, the University System announced last year that all schools must reconfigure their institutional aid so that low-income students will graduate with 25 percent less debt than their average-income counterparts.
“(It’s) a very significant challenge our nation faces in providing access to a higher education for all qualified students,” he said. “We have reached an indefensible position in our country,” he said.
At Prince George’s Community College, where full-time tuition is about $3,300 per year, even small cost increases can discourage students from enrolling, said Ronald Williams, the college’s president.
“We’ve got lots of poor students that are struggling to get in,” said Williams, who has had students decide not to enroll in a class because they were $20 short. “The choices they make are difficult for people to understand who grew up in the middle class.”
Williams said about 30 percent of students do not return the second semester, often citing financial reasons.
Alexis Grant is a part of that statistic. The 19-year-old enrolled in Prince George’s Community College last year, but left when she couldn’t afford the tuition. After a summer of working full time, Grant is still not sure when she’ll be able to return.
“I want to go to school. I should be able to go to school,” she said. “You (college) said you were going to help me. But then when I do go for help they leave me stranded.”
To combat drop-out rates, the college works with nearby high schools to help students navigate the maze of financial aid, said Williams.
Grant concedes there is help available, but often school help can’t replace parental guidance. With so many students clamoring for assistance from school guidance counselors, she couldn’t get the attention she needed.
“Everybody doesn’t fully understand and you get confused . . . and that put me behind right there,” she said. “So I just had to try and figure out on my own, which I still don’t understand to this day.”