McNeil attended the university when the government picked up more of the tab. He now relies on money inherited from his parents and loans to help his two children pay for college.
“Back then, I worked at Arby’s, had a summer job to pay for school,” said McNeil, a manager from the Denver suburbs. “A kid working today, no way they could work enough to raise the kind of money you’d need.”
However painful the rising tuition has been on students and families, it has not done enough to balance the effects of state budget cuts at many colleges and universities.
The seven-campus University of Maine system, for example, has cut about 20 programs, including Latin, and reduced employment by 7 percent since the recession began. Those cuts came even as Maine used some $29 million in stimulus money on higher education between 2009 and 2011.
In California, the state’s 112 community colleges will offer 5 percent fewer classes this fall. At Bakersfield College, some 150 classes have been cut and thousands of students have been wait-listed.
College president Greg Chamberlain said community colleges are turning students away despite surging demand from the unemployed who are looking for new skills.
“We should be opening our doors further, not closing them,” Chamberlain said.
At the same time, students seeking financial aid – especially those from middle-income families – also will have fewer ways to cope with rising tuition.
In Georgia, a lottery-funded merit scholarship that paid full tuition for in-state students with a B average has been scaled back this fall. Ohio cut need-based grants by two-thirds.
Awards from Minnesota’s U Promise Scholarship, which guarantees need-based aid to resident undergraduates from families making up to $100,000 per year, have been reduced for students this fall.
The federal government has stepped in to help students from the lowest-income families, adding $17 billion to the Pell grant program in 2009 and 2010.
This academic year, more than 9 million students at public and private schools are expected to receive more than $40 billion in total Pell spending, or about $4,400 each.
The number of students receiving Pell grants this school year is up about 50 percent from 2008, reflecting a rise in student enrollment and the number of low-income students.
Budget cuts and tuition hikes at state colleges and universities are not just problems for current students and staff, said Paul Lingenfelter, president of the State Higher Education Executive Officers group.
Lingenfelter said higher education is trending away from the middle class, forcing students to choose between a lifetime of debt or diminished career prospects.
“The issue the country really ought to be worried about is all the people who aren’t in college but should be,” Lingenfelter said.