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2010 December 13 - 12:00 am

MONEY TREE: Audit: W.Va. Colleges Shifting Cost Burden to Students

CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) — West Virginia’s higher education officials can’t determine how much a college education should cost or identify steps to ensure that obtaining a degree is an affordable option for state residents, according to a legislative audit.

“The state does not know when college costs too much to be affordable for state residents because there is no definition of higher education affordability,” auditors write in an audit released as part of the Legislature’s November interim meetings. “Cost management for higher education is not emphasized.”

Auditors listed five recommendations for the state Higher Education Policy Commission to consider. The recommendations range from developing specific affordability measures to creating a policy governing cost-controls at the state’s public colleges.

The audit said lawmakers established an affordability target in 2000, but evidence suggested that between 2000 and 2008 higher education became “less affordable for state residents and that an increasing cost burden has been placed on students through rising tuitions and fees.”

The total cost to attend a four-year college increased by 34 percent between 2004 and 2009, the audit said. Financial aid is not keeping pace and only about one-fifth of low-income students attend college.

A Marshall student could pay $4,360 to go to school in 2007. In 2009, the cost was $5,236.

The lowest increases at a four-year college were at Fairmont State University, where rates went up 7 percent over the past three years. At West Virginia University, tuition increased 12 percent in three years.

The Legislature has capped the average increase each year over four years at 7.5 percent.

Auditors said the increases can be tied to stagnant state funding for public colleges and universities. Since 2002, the state’s support of higher education grew by 3.22 percent. At the same time, inflation grew at a rate of 27.2 percent.

In 2002, tuition and fees covered about 46 percent of costs. By the 2008-09 school year, it had grown to nearly 62 percent. Now, nearly 70 percent of four-year college students have to borrow money to go to college.

And as students borrow defaults rates are climbing.

About 7.5 percent of students who borrowed to go to a four-year college defaulted on their loans. At community colleges, 15.3 percent eventually defaulted. The national default rate is 7 percent.

Bluefield State College and West Virginia State University have default rates over 10 percent.

Auditors found that the state’s Northern Community College has a default rate of 21.3 percent; Southern and Eastern have default rates of 17.9 percent; and New River has a default rate of 17.5 percent.

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