As Student Debt Increases, how can Universities keep costs down?

By Tom Neas

The price of higher education is rising.  And so is the debt of those who attend.

According to a recent report by the Institute for College Access and Success, US college student debt rose 10 percent in the previous year, now resting at $29,400 per person.  Elon University stayed under the national average with $28,183 per person, while North Carolina is at $23,893.

high and low debt states combined_2

Graphic comparing student debt in the highest and lowest states. Graphic by The Project on Student Debt.

However, many universities no longer voluntarily report their data.

“It underscores the limitations of voluntarily reported data and the need for the Education Department to collect this data for all colleges,” the report’s authors wrote.

The authors underscored a need to address the issue, offering advice to leaders of the nation’s universities.  Specifically, they advised reducing the need to borrow, increasing information and protection to students on financial aid and more active participation on the issue by universities.

Read the full report in a PDF.


Elon University dean of admissions Greg Zaiser. Photo by Elon University.

For many colleges, the goal is to make an affordable experience in order to draw prospective students. Still, the cost continues to rise.

Elon University dean of admissions Greg Zaiser thinks that student debt will rise nationwide as the cost of higher education increases.

“Elon has a relatively low default rate [for graduates], with most colleges having a 13 percent rate, while Elon has less than two percent,” Zaiser said.

The debate, according to Zaiser, is between keeping tuition low or providing more scholarships.

“The philosophy is to keep prices low,” Zaiser said, outlining the University’s stance.

The concept is called “tuition discounting” and is measured by how much of a student’s tuition goes back into a financial aid budget.  Nationally, this rate is around 45 percent.  At Elon, it is only 17 percent.

“A low rate is the envy of most colleges nationwide,” Zaiser said with a smile.  Listen to Zaiser speak about Elon’s participation in reporting data to publications:

Elon’s direction satisfies university student Joe Thompson, who stated that the University does a good job keeping education affordable.

“I think that lower tuition is more important, because there are already a lot of scholarships availible,” Thompson said.

Zaiser suggests that another possibility for lowering costs is through innovative programing, such as work study programs.  Elon University created the PACE (Providing Aid through Campus Employment) program in 2011 to provide on-campus jobs for students.

Students “are guaranteed a campus job with earnings of up to $3,000 per academic year,” the PACE site claims.

Other programs intend to incentivize graduates to move to certain areas, offering money for student loans.

Submitted by Chris Harris of the Kansas Department of Commerce

A map of the ROZs. Submitted by Chris Harris of the Kansas Department of Commerce.

In a previous article, Elon University economics professor Tom Tiemann spoke about the problems with these programs.  He does not see this incentive as enough of a draw for graduates.

“College graduates go somewhere for two reasons: they have a job or the area is a hot spot for jobs,” Tiemann said.

However, these programs do show some success.  The Kansas legislature expanded it’s “Rural Opportunity Zones” from 50 counties to a total of 73.

“We are very happy with the program,” Chris Harris, the program’s manager, said.  “The program started with 1,200 applications and is growing considerably.”

“When people say to me ‘we don’t want to take out debt for our son or daughter’ I think that is completely unrealistic.  It’s an investment, not a debt,” Zaiser said.


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