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Affordability in question

New report shows cost of attendance at university increasing

By Jackie Wattles
On February 3, 2014

  • In this photo, Janelle Stevens (center) and Scott Simoneau (right) are shown presenting their report to the committee. Increased competition among universities is one of the reasons costs have increased in recent years, according to the report. JACKIE WATTLES/The Daily Campus

A report released Friday by the state's Office of Program Review and Investigations found that the University of Connecticut is becoming less affordable. The report suggested the university adopt additional cost transparency measures to help students better plan their expenses.
Researchers concluded, "UConn's affordability has declined but that the university generally compares favorably to other flagship universities and to its peers."
The concept of affordability was based on income level and the report found that UConn's in-state prices have been rising by between eight and 10 percent over the past few years. But about 80 percent of incoming UConn students do not pay the actual "sticker price" of tuition.
"What seems affordable to one student and family may not be to another," Janelle Stevens, one of the researchers, told lawmakers. "The cost and short-term costs of college are high, but the return may come. With an uncertain return, people may be more unlikely to undertake higher costs."
The report determined that costs for in-state students are comparatively high; ranking about 10-16 compared to the 49 other flagships in various categories (with one being the highest costs). The gap is even wider for out-of-state students, where UConn ranks between seventh and ninth in terms of costs.
The report showed UConn's price tag as a high one for the lowest income bracket: even with financial aid, households making under $30,000 must use an estimated 48 percent of income to cover the costs. However, in that category, UConn actually fares well compared to other flagships.
It's in the middle- and upper-income brackets that UConn's cost fares poorly compared to other flagships, ranking between 11 and 21 out of 50 (with one being the highest cost). These families are eligible for less federal aid, and the report indicates the percent of income that a family must use to pay for UConn has increased across all brackets - by seven percent over the past three years, which "was higher than the majority of flagships."
Stevens and Scott Simoneau, who prepared the report for the committee, built upon the earlier version of the report with more statistics and unveiled recommendations to lawmakers. Among them: increasing the transparency of how financial aid is awarded and implementing a system that tracks the payback UConn students are getting on their degrees.
However, UConn does not track its graduates with any uniform method. Though some institutions have a system for tracking the returns recent graduates get on their degrees in the workforce, UConn's system is "done on a program by program basis," according to Stevens, and UConn was "not comfortable" releasing the data it does have.
The report, released Friday, also recommends that UConn develop a system to better inform incoming and current students of price increases on the university's website.
"UConn's known increases (are) not well publicized," the report reads. "Even when the university has set a tuition and fee schedule covering multiple future years, the information is not easily available to prospective or current students."
The UConn Board of Trustees approved a plan in 2012 to increase tuition to $10,368 for in-state students by 2016. That will be a 10.7 percent increase from this year's $9,256 tuition for in-state students.
The report also recommended initiating a study to look into the feasibility of implementing a "guarantee program," which would promise incoming freshmen that their tuition price would not increase during their college careers.
"We found that about 320 institutions offered tuition guarantees as of the fall of 2012," Simoneau said. Though the rules vary for whom tuition freezes, they aim to allow families to better plan college costs.
Another option Simoneau proposed was a pledge or debt-reduction program. These programs limit debt for certain students, particularly among those in the low-income bracket. He pointed to the University of Arizona's Arizona Assurance program.
"It's a no loan program where the maximum eligible income allowed is $42,000." Simoneau said the program guarantees coverage of college costs except for the "Expected Family Contribution," which is a dollar amount determined by federal law that a student's family can afford to spend on college relative to its income.
Debt-reduction programs expand beyond pledge programs to encompass even middle-income students. Simoneau said 12 of 50 flagship universities in the nation offer pledge programs, and four of those 12 offer debt-reduction programs.
The university's report also called for improved disclosure of how decisions about financial aid awards are made. Though financial aid spending has increased by 47 percent above inflation, the report states that the process by which the funds are allocated is "opaque."
"Policymakers do not have a clear understanding of UConn's financial aid policies," the report says. "Information about typical college prices actually paid by students, especially those in difficult financial circumstances, is not easily available."
The increased spending on financial aid by the university is what Wayne Locust, UConn's vice president of enrollment planning and management, highlighted in a brief statement issued shortly after the meeting.
"We're very pleased that the PRI report has shown the University of Connecticut excels in providing an affordable, high-quality education for our students, regardless of their economic means," Locust said.

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