College tuition rates continue to rise, overwhelm students in Missouri

Ninety-eight percent of Lincoln University freshmen receive federal or state financial aid. 
Source: National Center for Education Statistics
Ninety-eight percent of Lincoln University freshmen receive federal or state financial aid. Source: National Center for Education Statistics

As Missouri college students make the move to campus this month, many of their peers may be priced out.

The cost of a degree has skyrocketed 900 percent since 1980 and access to financial aid isn't keeping pace. The result is a financial bind for Missouri students, particularly those from low- to moderate-income households.

The Missouri Department of Higher Education and Workforce Development released the second part of its Equity in Missouri Higher Education Report in July. The report is part of a series centered around the results of a 2020 survey of nearly 10,000 college students in the state.

It's the department's first survey on college affordability, and more than 9,000 of the almost 10,000 student respondents said cost was a major obstacle to their college career.

College students are overwhelmed by the cost of getting a degree, according to the report, and two local institutions are no exception.

Lincoln University didn't have institutional data on affordability readily available, but 98 percent of full-time LU freshmen receive federal or state financial aid to help pay for college, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

Despite most students receiving aid, the typical Lincoln graduate still carries a median student debt of $30,375, according to the U.S. Department of Education's College Scorecard for LU.

At State Technical College of Missouri in Linn, 96 percent of full-time freshmen receive state or federal financial aid, according to data from the institution.

The slightly more than 2,000 technical students carry an average of $5,406 in student loans.

Lincoln President John Moseley and State Tech President Shawn Strong said rising higher education costs are an investment, and students receive a quality return from their institutions.

"Our students are going to graduate, and they're going to do extremely well," Strong said. "A lot of the time, it is you get what you pay for."

Rise of college tuition, fees

College students almost universally report the cost of college being a major obstacle to getting a degree, according to the equity report released in July.

Missouri's median income is $30,000 a year. Ninety-two percent of that income is needed to attend one of the state's four-year institutions of higher education full time.

The total amount of tuition and required fees a typical full-time Missouri college student will pay for the 2022-23 year ranges from $6,808-$11,883, depending on the institution. That's before room and board costs associated with living on campus, which most universities require freshmen to do but don't consider required fees in data reporting.

The most expensive four-year universities are the University of Missouri-St. Louis ($11,883 per year), Northwest Missouri State University ($11,877 per year) and the University of Missouri-Kansas City ($11,826). The two other campuses in the UM System -- Missouri University of Science and Technology and its primary campus in Columbia -- also charge more than $11,000 per year in tuition and fees.

Charging $7,440 in tuition and required fees this year, State Tech is the most expensive two-year institution in Missouri. It's followed by Crowder College ($5,010 per year) and Ozarks Technical Community College ($5,000 per year).

State Tech has increased its tuition and required fees by more than $1,500 during the past six years, including an increase this year. The technical college charged $5,872.50 in 2016 and has since increased the price by 21 percent.

Lincoln University is charging $8,386 in tuition and required fees for the upcoming academic year after raising tuition in April and last year. It's the fourth cheapest university in the state, but the price is still over $1,300 more than it was just six years ago.

In 2016, Lincoln charged $7,042 in tuition and required fees. The cost of a degree is now about 16 percent higher.

Throughout the U.S., the amount students pay in tuition and fees has increased 900 percent since 1980, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Jessica Duren, assistant commissioner of communications and outreach for the Missouri Department of Higher Education and Workforce Development, said the cost of getting a college degree in Missouri has increased for a variety of reasons, not a single factor.

She said some of the more understood reasons have been declining state and federal support for higher education as the price of goods and services increases, economic downturns cutting down enrollment and "possibly a lack of technological improvements over time (think of the cost many institutions had to bear when trying to switch to online instruction)."

But contributing factors affect institutions -- and even the programs offered at those institutions -- differently, she noted.

Until last year, the state had a mechanism in place that tied tuition changes to the consumer price index.

The Higher Education Student Funding Act prohibited public colleges and universities from raising in-state undergraduate tuition beyond the average change in consumer prices over time. Any institutions that did had to request a waiver or pay a penalty fee to the state.

"This legislation, the (HESFA), kept the cost of college in Missouri lower than many other states throughout the country," Duren said.

But those protections are gone.

The Missouri Legislature passed HESFA in 2007 and the Missouri Department of Higher Education had it fully implemented in 2009. The HESFA regulation was repealed by the General Assembly through HB 297 during the 2021 legislative session.

Now the department overseeing higher education in Missouri doesn't have any role in setting college tuition and fees students pay. Its only function in that area is to collect tuition and fee data, and make it available on its website.

Where are the students?

Of the students with resources to attend college, many are basing career choices on the cost of the degree, according to the department's Equity Report, and others are choosing cheaper schools or attending part-time, spreading out college expenses while delaying entrance into the workforce.

That bears out in Missouri's enrollment trends during the past decade.

There were 23,432 high school graduates who enrolled in either a two- or four-year college in 2011, but that number has since dropped more than 20 percent to 18,606 in 2021, according to the Missouri Coordinating Board for Higher Education's 2022 report on high school graduate performance released in March.

Four-year institutions saw the greatest declines during the past decade, losing a quarter of the new high school graduates they would've picked up in 2011. By comparison, two-year institutions, which tend to be cheaper for students, lost 15 percent of new graduates they would've enrolled in 2011.

Locally, State Tech has experienced five straight years of record enrollment growth and is planning on a sixth this fall, whereas Lincoln's enrollment has been declining for the past decade, including last year.

"I think it really comes down to a value proposition," Strong said when asked if State Tech is picking up students who may have previously gone to a four-year university. "People want a premium product, and they're going to pay for that premium product because there's a return. And I think we demonstrate year in and year out that State Tech offers a great return for the investment."

Cost being a significant barrier to education is a concern for the Missouri Department of Higher Education and Workforce Development not only because it prices out low- to modest-income students and families, but because it furthers a trend of an underdeveloped workforce.

When 66 percent of jobs in Missouri require a professional certificate, associate degree or higher, there's little room for the state to have a large population not enrolling in higher education to skill up, according to the department's Equity Report.

But college enrollment trends are continuing to decline in Missouri.

College enrollment of recent high school graduates fell 4.7 percent from fall 2020 to fall 2021, and overall headcount at public institutions declined 0.8 percent during the same time period, according to the Coordinating Board for Higher Education.

Fall-to-fall retention of freshmen students hangs around 75 percent across Missouri institutions.

But what about financial aid?

The Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) is the usual starting point for students to get financial assistance for college. The more than 100-question form determines if students can receive federal Pell Grants or student loans, or access work-study programs.

More than 2.1 million high school graduates have completed the application for the upcoming school year, which is approximately 59 percent of graduates across the country according to the National College Attainment Network. That number has been increasing since 2006, with slight dips the past two years because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The number of Missouri students completing FAFSA trails the national rate by about 6 percent.

More than 36,700 students from Missouri completed FAFSA for the upcoming academic year by the end of July, according to the National College Attainment Network. That's nearly half of the state's high school class of 2022.

FAFSA completion is also one of the greatest indicators for predicting post-secondary education attainment.

Students who demonstrate the most financial need are eligible for a Pell Grant worth up to $6,345, but award amounts aren't consistent from year to year and can change because of a variety of reasons.

A student's eligibility for federal aid is based on the expected family contribution, which FAFSA determines through parent financial information, household size and dependency status. The federal program only considers students independent from parents if they are 24 years old, married, in the military or have children of their own.

More than 70 percent of the Missouri college students who responded to the state's affordability survey in 2020 said they were financially independent from their parents. They routinely reported FAFSA does not accurately determine how much their families can financially contribute to their college expenses.

The Missouri Department of Higher Education and Workforce Development uses FAFSA to determine eligibility for state financial aid programs as well.

Approximately 65,000 Missouri students receive some form of state financial aid each year, Duren said, whether it be through the A+ Scholarship Program, Bright Flight, Access Missouri Grant or Fast Track Workforce Incentive Grant.

The maximum award amount for Access Missouri -- the state's need-based financial aid program -- is $2,850 per semester. Bright Flight grants high ACT scoring students either $3,000 or $1,000, depending on their score. A+ and Fast Track cover the remaining cost of tuition and fees after all other forms of aid are applied.

With 49 percent of the state's high school graduates completing the application for both federal and state financial aid, Duren said the Missouri Department of Higher Education works directly with high school counselors and colleges to increase FAFSA filing efforts.

She said the department has made college access, affordability and success central themes of its strategic plan and will use them to guide work into the future.

The state has taken steps to mitigate rising college costs in recent years, Duren said, such as Gov. Mike Parson issuing recommendations for increased higher education funding and the General Assembly delivering it.

Per the governor's recommendation, core funding for Missouri colleges and universities increased by $51.6 million (5.4 percent) during the most recent legislative session, which ended in May. The Legislature also appropriated an additional $18.5 million for state financial aid programs last session.

How colleges, state are responding

Strong, the president of State Tech, said the technical college's goal isn't necessarily to be the most affordable two-year institution in the state, but rather cover the cost of providing an education.

"All of our programs are very expensive, they're all technical in nature," he said. "We don't have low-cost transfer degrees or low-cost general liberal arts degrees, so everything we have is technical and very expensive."

The approach differs from Lincoln, which has historically attracted students from poorer socioeconomic backgrounds and tried to remain as low-cost as it can.

Lincoln isn't immune to inflation, however. Moseley said tuition hikes keep the university operating and services thriving as the cost to provide an education continues to grow.

"That is shared by our students, and we do our best to be as resourceful as possible, and also provide as many scholarship opportunities as we can for students through either the institution or partnerships with private businesses or private donors," he said.

Strong also said State Tech still tries to keep tuition increases consistent with inflation. Courses currently cost about $196 per credit hour, he said, "and we know there's probably something psychological about crossing that bridge over to $200 per credit hour."

"So setting tuition is part art, part science," Strong added.

Strong, who said he graduated college with more than $40,000 in debt, said he's not student debt-averse. It's an investment in the future, he said.

"If you choose wisely and choose the right degree, and it's a degree that you can make a good living off of, I think that debt is the best investment you can make," he said.

Moseley agreed.

"We believe Lincoln is a great value for a great education," he said. "So the focus for us is ensuring that our students aren't simply going to college, but they're graduating with a degree that they can earn a good living."

While Lincoln's $30,375 student debt average may be alarming for some, Moseley said it shows a greater value than most.

"At many institutions of higher education, you may incur $30,000 of expenses in your first year and so graduates may depart with four times as much debt," he said.

Moseley said college affordability has become an area of heavy interest in the field of higher education during the past few years. Conversations about how much state and federal governments can support higher education will always continue, he said.

The Missouri Department of Higher Education and Workforce Development, under interim leadership since May, plans to use data from the Equity Report to inform its operations into the future, Duren said.

The data is relevant to the department's administration of state financial aid programs, services offered at job centers and to partnerships with institutions and college access organizations, she said.

"We hope the information in the report will give policymakers and our institutions insight into the struggles of students and help shape future decisions that look at the student experience in a holistic manner," she said. "Many institutions already have resources on campus to help address food insecurity, housing and transportation issues."

Similar resources are available through Missouri Job Centers using Workforce Innovation Opportunity Act funding, Duren said.

But many students aren't aware of available aid programs and resources, she said, so the department is continually combating an awareness issue.

"How can we help more Missourians understand both their options for postsecondary education, but to also know the resources available to them to access those options and persist to completion?" she asked.

CORRECTION: This article was edited at 3:57 a.m. Aug. 16, 2022, to indicate the HESFA regulation was repealed by the Missouri General Assembly through HB 297 during the 2021 legislative session. The original version of the article was incorrect about the regulation's expiration.

  photo  Ninety-six percent of State Technical College of Missouri freshmen receive federal or state financial aid. Source: National Center for Education Statistics
  photo  News Tribune file photo: Ninety-eight percent of full-time Lincoln University freshmen receive federal or state financial aid to help pay for college, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.