Funding College Education Vs Experience

This week’s Courier Herald column:

The mantra has been the same around my family’s tables as with many Georgia families for years.  “If you don’t keep your grades up, you’re not going to get HOPE.”  Next month, a niece and nephew join another niece and thousands of other Georgia students who have received help attending college courtesy of Zell Miller’s lottery funded legacy program.

Now that HOPE has moved from…well, hope to reality, I’ll admit that when walking through the numbers with my sister and niece to being a bit underwhelmed.  I don’t intend to be ungrateful nor to diminish the accomplishment of those that have earned the scholarship, but for those like me that have been under the impression that HOPE covers the cost of attending a Georgia university, the balance due for fall semester came as a rude awakening.

For a student not receiving the full “Zell Miller” scholarship, HOPE still pays about 90% of tuition on the invoice I’ve seen for fall.  Then there’s those mandatory fees.  For one of my nieces they total about $1,000 per semester, while another has almost double that amount in fees.  Add in another $3,000 per semester for the required dorm, another $2,000 for the required meal plan, and $500 for books and it looks like we’re out of pocket about $6,000 for fall semester before books and other expenses.

Ballpark estimates for students attending a University System of Georgia school on a HOPE scholarship and living on campus indicate the student family should expect HOPE to pay 20 to 25% of the total cost while the family pays the balance.  HOPE will pay for most of the cost of attending the school, but families need to plan for living expenses to be paid out of pocket.  Living at home remains the student’s cost effective option.

There’s a myth that refuses to die that HOPE is responsible for out of control tuition increases in Georgia colleges.  That’s actually two myths in one, both of which are unfounded.

Yes, for well over a decade after HOPE was established, tuition at University System of Georgia institutions increased faster than the rate of inflation.  It’s hard to blame that on an influx of HOPE dollars when compared to public universities in neighboring states or private institutions around the region. 

A couple of years ago I made that exact comparison.  I found that USG’s tuition increases were comparable to almost every neighboring state over the past decade.  There was no aberration here due to HOPE.  It was the market in general moving higher.

Still, the University System got the message.  Tuition increases over the past six years have averaged less than 1.5% per year – less than the rate of inflation – with no tuition increase coming this year.  The University System claims that their tuition rates remain 25% less than peer institutions in other states. 

The realization that HOPE will cover most of the cost of tuition and fees but not housing or meals is now viewed through a post-pandemic lens.  Other schools – including some of the most prestigious and expensive in the country – have decided to keep campuses closed for the fall semester.  Some of them want to charge their students full price – including student fees for activities – despite not offering the full range of services for which they are charged.

Students at some of these schools have threated to sue, saying they are paying for the “experience” of an on campus environment.  The long term policy question here is one of funding.

HOPE covers most of the cost of the education.  If the student wants the full on-campus “experience”, it’s on them to figure out how to pay for it.

In the age of the internet, there are many ways to develop knowledge and skills online.  Yet much of the experience is subsidized by an unlimited pipeline of guaranteed student loans.

There are now $1.4 Trillion of these loans outstanding.  Many argue forgiveness is in order, in that these loans are a drag on the economy even for those that can pay. The most expensive schools are openly telling us the education component can be delivered in a more inexpensive manner. 

Their customers are telling us that they’re paying for much more than their education.  Policymakers should consider this when deciding how much of the total college expense package should be subsidized by taxpayers going forward.

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