As college costs soar, many local students may be left out

Most Americans will no longer be able to afford college if tuition costs continue to rise at current rates, a new study warns.

College tuition and fees increased 439 percent from 1982 to 2007, adjusted for inflation, according to the biennial report from the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education.

Student borrowing has more than doubled in the past decade, and students from lower-income families, on average, get smaller grants from the colleges they attend than students from more affluent families.

"If we go on this way for another 25 years, we won't have an affordable system of higher education," said Patrick Callan, president of the center, a nonpartisan organization that promotes access to higher education.

The warning has wide-ranging implications for public schools such as Winthrop University, where tuition increases have been common in recent years.

At Winthrop, the board of trustees voted in the spring to raise tuition by 8.3 percent, up from last year's 6.4 percent increase.

State residents living on campus paid about $8,600 per semester for tuition plus room and board. Out-of-state students who live on campus paid about $13,000 per semester.

"As a teenager, there's really nothing you can do aside from relying on your parents or scholarship money," said freshman Eddie Szeman, a member of the school's Council of Student Leaders. "And loans are getting harder to come by, as well. It just adds up to a failing higher education system."

Public universities could reduce costs through more distance learning, better use of senior year in high school and possibly even shortening college from four years, according to a separate report this week from the National Association of State Universities and Land-Grant Colleges.

But others argue the best hope is for states to reverse their approaches to funding higher education.

"When the economy is good, and state universities are somewhat better funded, we raise tuition as little as possible," Callan said. "When the economy is bad, we raise tuition and sock it to families when people can least afford it. That's exactly the opposite of what we need."

Winthrop President Anthony DiGiorgio uses the word "untenable" to describe how South Carolina funds its state colleges.

DiGiorgio often tells audiences that when he took the job in 1989, the state provided about 44 percent of Winthrop's funding.

Winthrop's state support currently is only 14 percent of its revenue.

"Tuition has had to fund what the state doesn't -- it's just that simple," DiGiorgio said Wednesday in an e-mail.

North Carolina provides its institutions about $10,000 per student, while South Carolina provides about $5,000 per student, DiGiorgio notes.

"Now, we are seeing additional cuts to that low level of state support, because of state tax policy changes and the declining national economy," DiGiorgio said. "Long term, it's an untenable situation for institutions, just as it is for families."

York Technical College President Greg Rutherford couldn't be reached for comment Wednesday.