Keeping College Affordable, 8/30/11

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News Brief - 8/30/11

For Students Heading Back to School, Mounting College Debt Highlights Need to Keep College Affordable

WGU keeps costs low with student-centered competency-based approach to education

SALT LAKE CITY — Finding ways to pay for college without forcing students to accumulate excessive debt is an important national challenge if we are to meet the higher education needs of our citizens. Getting a college degree often costs too much, and an increasing number of students graduate with staggering debt that can burden them for many years to come. The nation will not meet its goals for increasing the percentage of college-educated citizens unless we find ways to make college more affordable and to keep college borrowing to a minimum.

Today, roughly 40% of America’s college students are nontraditional students who are responsible for supporting themselves and usually have children and jobs. Some may have tried college immediately after high school, but didn’t finish. They’ve come back to get a bachelor’s or master’s degree that will help them get a job or promotion, change careers, or increase their earning potential. They need a credible degree, and they will probably have to borrow money to get it.

Student loans make it possible for these nontraditional students to go to college, but they can create a financial trap if used unwisely. They are relatively easy to qualify for under federal financial aid rules, and, in most cases, students can borrow an amount that exceeds the cost of tuition. These “excess funds” are used for living expenses, books, and in some cases, to pay off other debts. Given these factors, it is easy to see why adult students tend to borrow more than traditional students.

As an institution that serves nontraditional students, nonprofit Western Governors University is keenly aware of this issue and is working to ensure more adult students complete their degrees with less debt. We’re doing this in a few notable ways:

  • Keeping tuition low—tuition for a full 12-month year at WGU (with no limit on the number of courses) is less than $6,000 per year for most programs, and it has only increased by $200 in the past five years.
  • Allowing students to move through coursework as quickly as they can demonstrate mastery of course material—the average time to complete an accredited bachelor’s degree is two and a half years, which represents a total cost of about $15,000.
  • Counseling students to understand student loans and keep their borrowing to a minimum—the average debt for a WGU student graduating with a bachelor’s degree is $18,400.
  • Working with students to encourage responsible borrowing and loan repayment—the default rate for WGU students is now at 5% and has decreased steadily over the past two years.
  • Focusing on the needs of adult learners to help more students succeed—one-on-one mentoring, flexible scheduling, and even assistance programs for life issues help increase the number who will graduate. Currently, 54% of WGU students are on track to graduate within four years, and 83% are on track to finish within six.

America’s colleges and universities are on the right track. By continuing to keep tuition affordable and offering a variety of quality options to accommodate the needs of all of the state’s students, we can help ensure that quality higher education is accessible to all Americans.