On college affordability, Nebraska has a great story to tell, August 2013

By James B. Milliken
President, University of Nebraska

When it comes to the topic of college affordability, the headlines often focus on runaway tuition rates and excessive student debt. President Obama’s recently announced proposals to rein in college costs in the U.S. have renewed the focus on what should be done to ensure that higher education is open to all who could benefit from it.

I welcome the opportunity for a conversation about a critical issue that impacts not only students and their families, but also the competitiveness of our nation. While the details of the President’s proposals are still to come, I am convinced that the University of Nebraska has a good story to tell. Affordable access to quality education has long been our highest priority. True to our land-grant tradition, we believe the university should be accessible to all Nebraskans who are qualified and want to attend, so that they may enjoy the numerous personal, economic and societal benefits that higher education brings and so our state can enjoy the competitiveness that an educated workforce provides. And I am proud to say that we have delivered on our commitment.

Almost a decade ago, we worked with the Board of Regents to develop a set of strategic goals for the university – goals that would guide our actions and keep us focused on the future. Each broad goal includes specific performance metrics in key areas – tuition rates, enrollment growth, graduation success and others – by which we regularly and publicly measure ourselves.

One of the important sets of strategies we have pursued involves striking an appropriate balance among state funding, tuition charges, financial aid and cost effectiveness. For a public university like ours, a stable base of funding from the state can help ensure moderate, predictable tuition increases that help students and families plan for the cost of college. Since we implemented our strategic plan, we have increased tuition and fees at a rate 20 percent lower than the average for four-year public universities. Further evidence of the importance of this balance came this year, when we proposed to freeze tuition for Nebraskans if the state would make a basic investment in the university. The compact we reached with Governor Heineman and the Legislature will save the average undergraduate up to $1,000 over two years – savings that could mean less time working or smaller debt loads for our students.

Even before the tuition freeze, tuition rates on each of our campuses were well below the peer average. UNL’s tuition is lowest in the Big Ten. Our student debt levels are at or below the peer average – students at UNL and UNK, on average, graduate with about $4,000 less in debt than do their peers – and our four campuses have the four lowest student loan default rates among all Nebraska public institutions.

In addition to keeping tuition low, we’ve made significant investments in need-based financial aid, including our Collegebound Nebraska program, which guarantees that students with the highest need can attend the University of Nebraska and pay no tuition. More than 6,600 NU students are attending the University this year at least in part because of Collegebound Nebraska, and many more benefit from the numerous need-based and merit-based aid opportunities available. In fact, more than half of all NU undergraduates receive some form of grant aid that does not have to be repaid, meaning the majority of our students pay less than the advertised “sticker price.”

There is a final and very important aspect of providing affordable access – ensuring that our campuses are cost effective. Managing our resources in a way that is accountable to those who invest in us – taxpayers, students, parents, donors and others – is among our most important goals. Since 2000, we have implemented more than $78 million in budget reallocations in order to keep costs down while also investing in priorities. And this is in addition to many cost avoidance strategies adopted during that same period. We have streamlined programs, eliminated services and kept employee numbers down, all while significantly growing enrollment and research activity. Our staffing numbers, including at the administrative levels, are lower than those at comparable institutions.

I know college is a major investment for Nebraska families and that the state of Nebraska makes a significant investment in higher education. I think the evidence is clear that the investment is worth it. In just a few short years, two-thirds of all jobs in our state will require education beyond high school. And despite what the national headlines may say, we are fortunate that in Nebraska students can receive an excellent education for a great value. That’s something all Nebraskans can be proud of.

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