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The long hike up: Tracking the causes of the University's tuition increases

Illustration by Nolan Loh
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Published March 3, 2012

LSA sophomore Julian Hills is only halfway through college and he already owes more than $17,500 in loans — before interest.

Graphic by Nolan Loh
Graphic by Nolan Loh

By how much do you think that the University's annual tuition will increase next year?


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Hills, whose family’s yearly income is around $70,000, is paying his way through college entirely on his own.

Hills receives various scholarships and grants from the University and other private sources. He also works as a researcher in the University’s Undergraduate Research Opportunity Program to receive work-study funding. And he takes out loans.

Though his tuition is currently fully covered by the University in the form of scholarships, grants, work-study and loans, Hills said he is always concerned that he will lose that funding.

“Any time the budget gets cut, I wonder if my scholarships are going to get cut,” Hills said. “The budget still impacts students, even if they’re on full scholarships.”

It has never been more apparent that a college degree is necessary for future career endeavors. Based on statistics released last year by the U.S. Census Bureau, 30 percent of the 61 million Americans older than 25 possess undergraduate degrees. That proportion has consistently increased since the mid-1990s.

But the amount necessary to furbish a University degree has also increased at an annual rate of 5.56 percent.

In the 2000-2001 academic year, the annual tuition for undergraduate LSA students was $6,513 for in-state students and $20,323 for out-of-state students. That $6,513 consisted of approximately 14.3 percent of a Michigan resident’s median household income.

Compared to the current academic year, tuition has nearly doubled in the past decade, costing $12,634 for in-state students and $37,782 for out-of-state students. Tuition for in-state students currently consists of 25.5 percent of a Michigan family’s median household income.

Questions abound as to who must pay for the steep rise of University tuition: the students, the University, the state or the federal government?

A degree of cost

Only recently have people begun to voice serious concerns about college affordability, according to Martha Pollack, the University’s vice provost for academic and budgetary affairs.

“The drumbeat of public discourse about (tuition) has just skyrocketed in the last year or two,” Pollack said.

Engineering freshman Jacqueline Close said her family is lower middle class. She receives around $4,000 in grants and covers the rest of her tuition through federal and private loans and a work-study job.

According to the Free Application for Federal Student Aid — a national formula that calculates a family’s expected contribution to pay for college tuition by considering income, dependents, the number of children that family has enrolled in college at the same time and other various factors — Close’s expected family contribution based on household yearly income was zero. This means that she should have been eligible for much larger grants from the University based on her financial situation.

However, the FAFSA calculator deemed her family’s cottage an asset and she didn’t get any scholarships.

“The challenge for that middle range is that this national formula does have a pretty high expected family contribution,” Pollack said. “What many students end up doing is taking additional loans to cover that. That’s how they get by. Is that a good thing? No. Unfortunately, we can’t fix that.”

Pollack said she understands that a mathematic equation doesn’t fully consider all the factors that go into covering tuition costs. She said her belief is that a strong investment in financial aid can help to fill in some of these missed holes.

Financial (first) aid

Financial aid is increasing at twice the rate that tuition is increasing.

In the 2012 fiscal year, the University distributed a record $137 million from its general budget to financial aid.

The University has a commitment to meet the full cost of attendance for Michigan in-state students through a combination of grants, work-study jobs and loans. Pollack said the University has maintained this commitment. Currently, 70 percent of in-state students receive some form of financial aid.

Scholarships, grants, work-study jobs and loans are all categorized as types of financial aid. Scholarships and grants are gift funds, while work-study jobs provide a student with funding through hours they work. Loans are funds that must be repaid with interest once a student graduates.

Central Student Government President DeAndree Watson, an LSA senior, said he wouldn’t be at the University if it weren’t for financial aid.

Watson says he is from a lower-middle class family in Detroit. His tuition is entirely covered by a scholarship given to students that graduate from Detroit Public Schools.