Archived Opinion

Keeping college affordable

Some time this holiday weekend, my nephew Sterling will come for a visit at my mother’s house. He’s a high school senior, and he is still unsure of his college plans.


As I think about Sterling’s situation, I find myself in the dilemma of feeling drawn to opposite sides in the debate about federal and state funding to help college students: I want the government to help the needy gain access to a college education, but I believe middle-class and low-income students have much to gain by working their way through school.

Sterling fits pretty squarely into the category where his family would probably qualify for at least some need-based financial aid but not a full ride. He’ll also have to borrow money and most likely work part-time if he goes to college somewhere away from home.

Keeping that in mind, he’ll graduate owing somewhere between $20,000 to $50,000 — give or take a few thousand — as opposed to those students whose parents can afford to pay for everything associated with college. If he goes into any of the modest-paying professions — teaching, for instance — he’ll be a decade paying back his loans. In a real-world scenario, he and others like him will be whacking away at their college loans when others are getting a head start on house buying and investing, or perhaps these lucky students will have the option of traveling without the burden of a loan hanging over them.

This is an economic reality that today’s 18-year-olds have a hard time coming to grips with. I feel sure Sterling will go to college, but this scenario could very well drive some kids to the working world without a higher education.

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Since this is the time when students begin finalizing college choices, it seems that college aid has been in the news of late. Of course, it is also one of the Democrats’ pledges to make college more affordable for more people.

The truth of today’s financial aid picture for those needing money for college is a little disheartening.

Over the past couple of decades, the amount of federal money allocated for need-based students has declined. Pell grants, the primary grant for low-income students, is down by $900 million from $13.6 billion to $12.7 billion for the 2005-06 academic year. The average grant amount decreased by about $120 per student to $2,474.

There is also evidence to suggest that universities are directing more of their money to merit-based scholarships. A recent Washington Post story cited a College Board study that showed merit-based aid increasing at both private and state universities.

What that creates is a scenario where a well-off kid who takes the SAT four times and participates in a whole host of application-padding extracurricular activities will get offered a merit-based scholarship over the great student who simply did not have those options. Doesn’t seem fair, but that is just the way it is.

Surprisingly, many college presidents say the rankings that have become so popular in U.S. News and World Report and other magazines play a part in this increase in merit-based aid. They need to have a higher percentage of the best students to maintain their ranking. The old days of offering aid to needy students so they would have the opportunity to experience college is being replaced by a bidding war for the best and the brightest. It’s a market-based system applied to college admissions, which doesn’t bode well for the needy.

This decrease in financial aid and increase in merit-based scholarships is happening at the same time tuition is skyrocketing. In North Carolina, tuition has risen as much as 70 percent at some of 16 campuses in the state system in the past decade. Private colleges are also foisting double-digit tuition increases upon their students.

Luckily for students in this state, the Charlotte Observer recently reported that the top budget priority for the UNC Board of Governors over the next two years is to get more money for need-based financial aid. What the UNC system’s leaders want is to ensure that every North Carolina student eligible for state need-based aid gets it. The paper reported that the program fell $12 million short this year in meeting that goal. The Board of Governors also wants to eliminate tuition increases for needy students.

In essence, UNC System President Erskine Bowles wants to ensure that students can get the financial help they need to attend one of the state’s universities. That’s an honorable goal in and of itself.

Working one’s way through college is still a great way to learn to appreciate the value of an education. However, with tuitions rising faster than incomes, it is becoming more difficult for more students to accomplish.

In this day and age, state and federal governments must pony up to help needy students get a college education. From its earliest days, leaders in this country worked to make a basic education available to everyone who wanted it. As times have changed, we must do the same for a college degree.

Leaders with the state university system and the incoming majority in Congress have pledged to make college more affordable for more students. We must hold their feet to the fire on this one.

(Scott McLeod can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..)

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