More Kentucky students are being encouraged to enroll in college, showing up prepared and graduating, but the state still doesn't do enough to make college affordable, according to a new national report.
The independent report on American higher education flunks all but one state when it comes to affordability — an embarrassing verdict that is unlikely to improve as the economy contracts.
The biennial study by the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education, which evaluates how well higher education is serving the public, handed out F's for affordability to 49 states, including Kentucky, up from 43 two years ago. Only California received a passing grade in the category, a C, thanks to its relatively inexpensive community colleges.
Still, the report shows that Kentucky has hoisted itself up to or above the national average in several key areas.
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Among them, the state reached the national average in getting young adults into college, with 35 percent of 18- to-24-year-olds entering a college, university or technical school, compared with 34 percent nationally.
The number of Kentucky students completing their degrees in relation to total enrollment also soared from near the bottom in the early 1990s to match the top-performing states. Forty-seven percent of Kentucky college students now complete a bachelor's degree within six years.
"This is the key," said Richard Crofts, the interim president of Kentucky's Council on Postsecondary Education. "We are not just trying to build enrollments but we're trying to increase the number of people who have degrees."
Crofts said many of the improvements reflected in the report, such as greater success with low-income students in math and science, stem from reforms made to K-12 curricula since 1990.
The most striking — though not shocking — trend revealed in the report is the increasing cost of higher education.
The 40 percent of Kentucky families who earn the least must use 39 percent of their income to attend a 4-year college, up from 33 percent in 2004, the report found. And that's after accounting for financial aid, which is increasingly being used to lure high-achieving students who boost a school's reputation, but who don't need help to go to college.
"We're not surprised about the grade and the data about affordability," Crofts said. "There's a concern that if we don't turn around recent trends, we will reach the point where public higher education in the commonwealth is unaffordable for far too many of our citizens."
Specifically, the report called out Kentucky for providing only 48 cents of aid for every dollar in federal Pell Grant aid to students.
Still, Kentucky is more generous with financial aid across all income levels than most states, ranking third in the nation with $1,098 per student. But the commonwealth drops to ninth-best in need-based grant aid per student with $542, according to figures from the National Association of State Student Grant and Aid Programs annual survey.
Gov. Steve Beshear has created a college affordability working group to make recommendations by September 2009 on ways Kentucky can lessen college costs. The group, which met Tuesday, will look at increasing availability and funding for financial aid, among a host of other options.
The average tuition at Kentucky's eight public four-year colleges for this academic year is $6,799. Among the 10 Southern states, only South Carolina's and Virginia's figures were higher, according to the College Board.
Nationally, tuition increases have far outpaced boosts in financial aid since 2003. Universities are using the money to make up for drops in state funding, said Sandy Baum, economics professor at Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., and a senior policy analyst with the College Board. She presented figures to the governor's working group Tuesday.
"It's not that their spending has gone up rapidly ... it's that tuition revenues are an increasing portion of revenues at public institutions," she said.
The problem seems likely to worsen as the economy does, said Patrick Callan, the center's president.
Historically during downturns, "states make disproportionate cuts in higher education and, in return for the colleges taking them gracefully, allow them to raise tuition," Callan said. "If we handle this recession like we've handled others, we will see that this gets worse."
Overall, college costs are sucking up an increasing chunk of families' income. On average, the lowest-earning 20 percent of Americans must spend more than half of their income on college. Meanwhile, the number of students needing federal Stafford loans has jumped by 50 percent in the last decade, according to the 2008 "Measuring Up" report.
The total amount American students have borrowed to pay for school has more than doubled in 10 years from $41 million to $85 million, the report said.
The ballooning costs are causing systemic problems, the report says, as the United States now ranks 15th out of 29 nations surveyed in completion rate of college degree and certificate programs.
Thirty-nine percent of U.S. adults between the ages of 35 and 65 hold at least an associate degree, second only to Canada. But among those 25-34, the United States' 39 percent rate is tied for 10th with Spain, Sweden and Australia.
"Our nation and our states can do better," former North Carolina Gov. Jim Hunt wrote in the report. "Family wealth and income, race and ethnicity and geography play too great a role in determining which Americans receive a high school education that prepares them for college, which ones enroll in college, and which ones complete certificate or degree programs."