Rising tuition costs at public universities across the state are causing some high school seniors to rethink their college plans.
For McKinney ISD students, these rising costs are making an impact on how students are planning to achieve a higher education, according to MISD officials.
“The cost of a college education is considerably outpacing inflation, making it very difficult for an average high school student to afford,” said Tammi Saffell, a college adviser at MISD. “There are many scholarship opportunities available for students in the top of their class, but as a student’s grade point average and class rank lowers, scholarship options start to decrease.”
The Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board estimates the average cost of tuition, fees, books, transportation, room and board and other expenses for a full-time undergraduate student is $28,639 per year.
The impacts of these rising costs are reaching state lawmakers. Prioritized by Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, Senate Bills 18 and 19 going through the Texas Legislature aim to decrease tuition costs at public universities, which are rising an average of 6 percent per year, according to the THECB.
The effectiveness of such bills is up for debate even if passed, according to higher education officials, and paying for college is still a primary concern for graduating high school seniors and those already enrolled in college.
Saffell said cost is a major factor for most students when deciding which college to attend.
“Some students have family support to help cover the cost so that they don’t have to take out as many loans, but other students are paying for college by themselves,” she said. “I never advise my students to start their undergraduate degree with taking out more than $20,000 per year in loans. They would graduate college with a mortgage payment without owning a home.”
Saffell said students have other options to make college more affordable, such as living at home, applying for grants and attending community college, but she said she still knows of some students who begin at a four-year college, use loans to pay for it and end up coming home after a year or two because of the cost.
According to the Institute for College Access and Success, in 2015 the average student loan debt at graduation in Texas was $27,324 for public universities. Saffell said most students at MISD are anticipating graduating college with some student loan debt.
Students have to file financial aid forms as a dependent student until they are age 24 or meet independent status through other avenues, such as both parents being deceased, being in foster care after the age of 13, or having a child whom they support more than 50 percent.
“These are rare cases, so for students with families unable to help pay for college, it puts the cost of attending directly on the student even though the government is using the family’s financial status to determine what aid the student is eligible for,” Saffell said. “Students in this situation used to be able to work and pay for college if they didn’t qualify for merit-based scholarships. With the increasing cost of tuition, that is becoming less of an option.”
Despite decreases in state aid to colleges and rapid tuition growth over the years, Texas ranks seventh nationwide in higher education affordability, according to the 2016 College Affordability Diagnosis from the Penn Graduate School of Education.
Raymund Paredes, higher education commissioner for the THECB, said one of the greatest challenges for colleges and families is finding enough funding to cover all students in need of tuition relief. He said as grant money at the state and federal levels falls short, higher education officials will have to find solutions.
“We recognize that the current model of relying on either federal grant aid or state grant aid, primarily through the Texas grant program, will be very difficult to sustain in the future,” he said.
Saffell said MISD partners with the McKinney Education Foundation, which places college counselors, such as Saffell, at MISD campuses to help guide students through the process of selecting their higher education path.
In 2016 the MEF awarded more than $410,000 in scholarships to MISD graduating seniors, with scholarships ranging from $500-$35,000.
Finding cost-saving alternatives
As costs continue to rise, Saffell and other college advisers are encouraging students to take more dual-credit courses.
MISD is one of many Collin County school districts that partners with Collin College to offer dual-credit courses. According to Brenda Kihl, executive vice president at Collin College, dual-credit course enrollment increased
71 percent from 2012-16.
“Every course you take is about a $400 savings,” Kihl said. “Dual-credit means that they are taking a college credit but they are also meeting the high school requirements for that course. We have a large number of students who are graduating high school with 30 college credits—that’s a whole year of college.”
At McKinney North High School, for example, there are 103 students enrolled in dual-credit courses for the spring 2017 semester. Over the past three years, the number of students at MNHS enrolled in dual-credit courses increased from 60 to 103.
Debra Fort, lead counselor at MNHS, said she anticipates the number to increase during the 2017-18 school year as well, adding that dual-credit community college courses are typically offered at a lower cost than what most universities charge. This year the cost increased to $125 for each three-hour course, she said.
“Taking dual-credit classes in high school can end up saving the student thousands of dollars in college,” Saffell said. “As long as the student plans on attending a college that will accept the course, it can save students time and money.”
In addition to dual-credit courses, Saffell said she encourages students to attend a community college prior to transferring to a university as a cost-saving measure.
Collin College, with campuses in McKinney, Allen, Plano, Frisco and Rockwall, offers a semester of 12 credit hours for just over $500. In comparison, a semester of 12 credit hours at The University of Texas is $5,055, and a similar semester at Southern Methodist University is $26,249.
“This is one semester, so if a student comes to Collin for two years, they can save $20,000 [compared with UT], which is basically a brand new car,” Kihl said. “That’s the biggest financial impact a community college can make.”
Kihl said Collin College credits transfer to Texas public universities. The college also has partnerships with major universities, including SMU, the University of North Texas, Texas Women’s University, Texas A&M University-Commerce, the University of Texas at Dallas and Texas Tech University.
The partnerships vary by university, but most allow students to attend classes at the Collin Higher Education Center in McKinney while obtaining a bachelor’s, master’s or doctoral degree from one of the partner universities. Students pay the tuition rates for the colleges, but Kihl said the option allows students to stay at home longer, which can be a cost savings.
The partnership is not only offered to Collin College students—any student registered for classes at the offering university can register for classes at the higher education center. As it stands now, only those degrees listed on the higher education center website are being offered through the partnership, but more degrees may be added in the future, according to Collin College officials.
Addressing the rising costs
To address the rising cost of tuition at universities across the state, Sen. Kel Seliger, R-Amarillo, filed SB 18 and SB 19 in January. SB 18 would eliminate a rule requiring public universities to use a portion of tuition revenue to fund scholarships for students with financial need, therefore potentially allowing colleges to use the funds in other areas. SB 19 would freeze tuition prices for students for two years. Neither bill would apply to community colleges.
Another bill, SB 543, also filed by Seliger, would require state schools to meet performance-based metrics before being allowed to raise tuition. Language from this bill has since been added to SB 19.
Since HB 3015 was passed by the 78th Texas Legislature in 2003—allowing public universities to vary tuition rates—tuition has risen at public universities from 2003-15 by as much as 178 percent. Students paid a statewide average of $1,687 more per semester in 2015 than they did in 2003, according to the THECB.
However, the universities attribute such increases to a decrease in state funding per student, enrollment growth and an increase in costs.
As of press time April 27, SB 18 and SB 19 had been passed by the Senate and were in the House under review.
Correction: A previous version of this story misstated what was included in a cost estimate from the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board. The estimate of $28,639 includes tuition and fees as well as books, transportation, room and board and other expenses.