It is not hard to find Idaho college students so saddled with expenses they can barely make ends meet to get through their next semester. Once they get the diploma, many graduates face sobering prospects for jobs in their fields while taking on student loan payments that rival a home mortgage.
We know these young adults and you know them — some of us even parent them. Because one of the contributing factors to debt has been increases in tuition rates, we were happy to hear the Idaho State Board of Education had sent a message to Idaho’s public colleges: This needs to slow down. It is about time.
Idaho Statesman education reporter Bill Roberts wrote recently about steep and steady increases that have piled up in Idaho colleges over the last 15 years. Though it is fair to factor in that Idaho schools may cost less than others in the West, our graduates tend to make less money. Plus, some students have to minor in finance to project increasing education expenses.
It has been a rare year when a tuition increase was less than 5 percent at Boise State University, the University of Idaho, Idaho State University and Lewis-Clark State College — while some years increases were double-digit.
We understand the financial challenges our public institutions face. State support for higher education has been shrinking at an alarming rate. Roberts reported Sunday that since 1980, “state support for higher education dropped from 93 percent of the higher education budget to about half.” In addition to shrinking state support, this year public institutions are asked to carry out the Legislature’s unfunded mandate of a 3 percent raise for nearly half of their employees.
Our colleges and their governing bodies find themselves in a tough spot — but one in which we feel they have set the right tone. The State Board was realistic and prescient to recommend a 3.5 percent-range ceiling on tuition increases before any of the schools even made their requests. The colleges are correct to perceive these realities and stay within those boundaries.
Just as a bull market faces corrections on Wall Street, there is a gravity to the ratio of how much burden can be placed on students and tuition payments. Yes, they can always find “financial aid.” But the dirty little secret of that scenario is that 90 percent of all aid is debt.
The Legislature faces many funding challenges with finite resources. As encouraged as we are that improvement is being made in the K-12 area, higher education deserves more than it is getting. If too many of our kids graduate in too much debt, they will be unable to buy the starter homes and participate in the economy the way past generations have.
Student debt has a stubborn half-life and needs long-term relief.