State Board of Regents should focus on college affordability 

Recently, Gov. Nathan Deal announced plans to tackle the state's subpar college graduation rate. According to the U.S. Department of Education, only 44 percent of Georgia's college students graduate within six years. Some metro-area colleges have even worse graduation rate averages, such as Kennesaw State University at 35 percent and Southern Polytechnic State University at a meager 29 percent.

To confront this problem, Deal plans to assemble a commission to brainstorm ways to change how public institutions are funded and to introduce a pilot program at four schools targeted at giving remedial help.

While the governor's efforts may help remedy low graduation rates, he has overlooked one notable factor: college costs.

Research has shown that a major obstacle to college graduation is affordability. The changes to the HOPE Scholarship program initiated by Deal and approved by the Legislature have made college costs increase for thousands of Georgia students. And cuts to the University System's budget have caused the Board of Regents to further increase tuition and mandatory student fees.

While our culture romanticizes college life as a care-free experience of never-ending frat parties, football games and dorm room decorating, the reality for many of today's college students is quite the opposite.

According to a federal study, only a quarter of today's university population are full-time students without outside jobs while nearly half of students work more than 20 hours a week. Many of the students who fail to finish college are those working to put themselves through school.

Since 2007, tuition at Georgia's public universities have risen from 30 percent to 46 percent. Georgia State University has the fourth-highest percentage tuition increase in the country.

The Board of Regents in 2009 also instated a "temporary" $100 institution fee — which has grown into a permanent, mandatory $404 fixture on students' accounts.

If the legislature continues to cut the USG's budget, the Board of Regents will see fit to continue to increase tuition and fees. As the cost increases, the burden to students of lower incomes and those who work to cover their school costs will become even heavier.

The purpose of the public university system, aided by the HOPE Scholarship, was to make Georgia's post-secondary educational institutions more accessible to students of lower incomes. However, with downgrades to HOPE and tuition costs soaring, the state seems to be back-tracking on this goal.

By limiting affordability in this way, the divide between socioeconomic classes in Georgia will grow. As students of lower income brackets are squeezed out by higher costs, education will only be accessible to those who can afford it. In the end, the "natural selection" of who gets a degree will depend less on a student's academic ability than on her ability to pay.

We can't expect graduation rates to improve if students have to take part-time course loads in order to pay their tuition bill.

If Gov. Deal is serious about improving the graduation rate, he will have to confront the affordability of the state's public colleges and universities. We need to stop viewing students as customers willing to pay for a degree and begin to view them as investments in Georgia's future.

Miranda Sain is a Creative Loafing intern.

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