Unpredictable debt endangers students

By Editorial Board

This year, 390 Columbia students were barred from registration because each owed the college more than $7,000, according to Mark Kelly, vice president of Student Affairs, at the Faculty and Staff Convocation on Aug. 31. Some were able to pay up and have returned to class, but the majority will not be returning to Columbia. While it is necessary to hold students accountable for their debts, there is a deeper issue concerning the unpredictability

of tuition.

For the most part, people paying to go to college will always want to pay less, and faculty and staff know this is rarely possible. To say that Columbia should simply cut tuition or stop increasing it would be unrealistic, but there are other solutions that could make tuition more manageable for students.

A one-time tuition cut, followed by regular increases in tuition, can bring positive publicity to the college, which could increase enrollment. This could be beneficial to Columbia, where tuition hikes have been a response to falling enrollment. This year, the University of Charleston in West Virginia cut tuition by 22 percent. Edwin H. Welch, the college’s president, told CNN that enrollment increased after the tuition cut was announced, and tuition deposits went up 40 percent.

Another solution would be a tuition lock in which incoming freshman are guaranteed a four-year tuition rate  that stays the same, as long as the student remains enrolled continuously all four years. The tuition rate that subsequent freshmen are locked into may go up, meaning a second-year student may be paying less than a first-year student, but each individual student would not deal with tuition increases. Under this model, there is no guarantee that students pay less overall, but tuition becomes more manageable by allowing students to know exactly what they will pay all four years. Many colleges have had success with this model.

The University of Illinois, for example, introduced a program in 2003 called “guaranteed tuition” that locks students into such a four-year rate. The undergraduate guaranteed tuition program helps “provide a high degree of certainty about tuition costs for students and families,” according to the

college’s website.

Part of what makes college difficult to pay for is unanticipated tuition hikes. Increases in tuition are expected, but the rate of increase is not regular or predictable. Last spring, Columbia’s board of trustees approved a tuition increase of 5.2 percent, while the U.S. inflation rate is around 1.4 percent. With guaranteed tuition, students may actually end up paying more during their first two years than they would through tuition that is subject to annual increases, but predictable rates may be worth it to some students.

By raising tuition and ejecting students who can’t pay, Columbia is not doing anything outside of the norm. But the college could do more to ensure that students can handle paying tuition. Even if freezing tuition means a higher rate for the first year or two, predictability would benefit many, especially those who discover they cannot pay for schooling after they have completed several semesters.

To those students who will not be returning, the money and time spent on an unattained degree may have a lasting impact on their lives. Students should demand predictability because there is no reason that students should not have a realistic expectation of what they will pay throughout their

college career.