Ohio's Higher Education Affordability Problems

Bill Rice- For Traci Lewis, working toward a college degree at the University of Akron is a semester-to-semester proposition. She's 33, and in her junior year, majoring in biology and pre-med.

Traci Lewis- I always knew I wanted to finish my education, it was just a question of saving up enough money to do that.

BR- Over the years Tracy has made a living working in a restaurant and taking some temporary service jobs. She now feels a degree is within her reach, but the expense of college is an obstacle.

TL- Being a non-traditional student I had other bills to take care of and school -- just when I saved up enough money to come, even if it was part time, they would keep raising the prices, and I had to determine if I was going to pay my rent and eat, or go to school.

BR- Tracy's situation is not unusual. Ohio's state-supported university system ranks near the bottom when it comes to affordability -- 44th among the 50 states, according to one national group that compiles such data. University of Akron President Luis Proenza says Tracy is among Ohio's hopefuls, but thousands of others who would like to further their education never do, because they find the cost too much to handle. He sees that as a state failure.

Luis Proenza- 30 years ago Governor Rhodes, together with the board of regents, promised that no Ohio student would ever have to pay more than 30% of their cost of a public higher education. Because of the state's failure to invest over these many years, students are today paying 50% or 60%, depending on which institution they attend. So promises made were not promises kept.

BR- As a result, Proenza says, Ohio has fallen far below the national average in the percentage of people earning a college degree. And he's one of many who believe that hurts not just individuals, but the state as a whole.

LP- Throughout the nation study after study shows that the per capita income is directly proportion to the number of people with a higher education. In a so-called new economy where employers are looking for higher trained workers in order to increase their competitiveness and productivity, that spells a direct relationship to the economy.

BR- Proenza has plenty of company. Matthew Filipic worked for years for the Ohio Board of Regents, the state's higher education policy and planning agency. He's currently Vice President in charge of Finance at Wright State University. He says Ohio has not kept up with the times, and the statistics bear that out.

Matthew Filipic- 40 years ago Ohio's per capita income back in the 1950s was 5-10% above the national average. About 1970 we fell to the the national average, and now we're in the neighborhood of 5-6% below. That's an enormous swing.

BR- And it's one that will continue, Filipic fears, if funding for higher education doesn't get a substantial boost. That's what the Board of Regents wanted to do back in September when it recommended increasing the university system budget by 12.5% a year Ð that's the amount many board members feel is necessary to begin to pull Ohio back into the mainstream. It's an expensive proposal, Filipic says, and one he hopes will carry a message to Columbus.

MF- What we're trying to do is remind state leaders that the world has changed. That Ohio's not prepared to deal with it.

BR- Filipic concedes the proposal stands little chance of being adopted in next year's state budget. In fact, Governor Bob Taft has proposed only a two percent increase, and republican lawmakers show every intention of going along with the lower figure. State Representative Ann Womer Benjamin is on the House Sub-committee on higher education.

Ann Womer Benjamin- Higher education may well be ultimately meaningless if we don't continue to address our Primary and secondary education. What I think we need to do is fund higher education to the extent that we can, but recognize that it is going to be a tight budget.

BR- Even a 2% increase is a good sign, says University of Akron President Luis Proenza. He says legislators understandably place a high priority on other problems, such as K-through-2 schools, Medicaid shortfalls, and the high cost of maintaining the prison system. In the face of all that it's hard to make the case for higher education.

LP- But I would beseech them to recognize that unless they begin to move Ohio back into the mainstream of America ito investment in the long term, it will have a simple and predictable result and that is dooming Ohio to a state of self-imposed mediocrity.

BR- And for now, Tracy Lewis takes her college education one semester at a time.

TL- If I can at least get into school and start a semester, I worry about the rest of the tuition bill later.

BR- Bill Rice, 90.3, 90.3 WCPN.

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