Study took an unfair shot at higher education

A national study that found low-income students can't afford to attend most of the nation's colleges and universities shocked officials at schools identified as unaffordable and prompted sharp responses from irritated administrators trying to defend costs at their schools as well as criticism from education groups.

The study by the year-old Lumina Foundation for Education rated nearly 3,000 schools and found that only Alaska, Arkansas, Hawaii, Kentucky and Wyoming offer four-year public colleges that are affordable to low-income people without financial aid.

That's quite an indictment of the nation's higher-education system. Nevertheless, there are 15 million people from all income levels attending college at two- and four-year schools nationwide, and enrollments go up every year.

Southeast Missouri State University was among schools listed as unaffordable by low-income students.

Art Wallhausen, associate to the president at Southeast, criticized the study, saying it was based on broad generalizations and averages.

He said Southeast officials worry that applying an unaffordable label to the school can discourage students from looking at ways to finance a college education with loans and other financial aid.

Wallhausen said that in fiscal year 1999, incidental and general fees at Southeast totaled $103.50 a credit hour, while those at Southwest Missouri State University in Springfield, Mo., which was categorized in the study as affordable with loans, totaled $109.42.

Neither, he said, did the study reflect the fact that since fiscal year 1995, the average annual fee increase at Southeast -- 4.4 percent -- has been the lowest at any of Missouri's major four-year schools, while increases at Southwest and Central Missouri State University have averaged over 7 percent per year during the same period. The study also placed Central Missouri State in the affordable-with-loans category.

He said the study unfairly places Southeast in the same category as the University of Missouri's St. Louis and Columbia campuses, where fees have risen more than twice as much.

He said it didn't take into account that Southeast is one of only a few schools nationwide that operate a textbook rental system, which saves students hundreds of dollars a year. But neither did it take into account housing and food costs, which are lower at some other schools.

Nevertheless, Wallhausen is on track in saying the study dealt in broad generalizations and averages. The result is that the study unfairly labeled practically all public higher education as too costly for most students when the fact a college education is achievable by everyone when considering the availability of student loans and aid.