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confronting cost

It's a stressful time of year for students who are preparing to send out their college applications. But the next step - figuring out how much it's all going to cost - can be even more stressful. Now there's a new effort to make that complicated process a little simpler.

In late October, the Massachusetts’ Department of Higher Education released its “Degrees of Urgency” Vision Project report. It addresses challenges for state colleges and universities as demographic shifts in the next decade will result in smaller student enrollments. In New England, colleges can anticipate a 9 percent or more population loss.   

A national organization representing thousands of university professors is criticizing program cuts and faculty layoffs at the University of Southern Maine in Portland.

In a letter addressed to President David Flanagan, the American Association of University Professors questions the severity of the university’s financial woes. AAUP says the actions being taken are in “blatant disregard” for tenured faculty.

Since the Great Recession, the amount of money states invest in public higher education has dropped dramatically. That, coupled with a steep drop in enrollment, has led some state university systems to cut faculty and academic programs altogether. In Maine, where Republican Paul LePage secured a second term as governor on Tuesday, those cuts are unlikely to be restored.

There's a growing skepticism in this country about whether college is really worth it. Now, one of higher education’s heavy hitters is weighing in on that national debate.  On Friday, Harvard President Drew Faust kicked off the university’s campaign to make the case for college, writing an op-ed in the USA Today and delivering a speech to high school students and teachers in Dallas.

Public discourse around the increasing cost of college and the student debt crisis has reached a feverpitch over the past five years. College and university administrators have responded to these concerns by increasing the amount of financial aid institutions provide to students: the average discount rate is now over 45 percent for private schools. This means that the average private college subsidizes students at a rate of $0.45 for every dollar of tuition it receives.

Schools give two types of scholarships: need-based scholarships that go to the lowest-income students, and merit scholarships that go to the smartest students. A report from the New America Foundation finds schools are increasingly using their money on merit scholarships. Steven Burd authored the report, and he says this trend means more money is going to those who need it the least. 

In what it calls “an elaborate shell game,” universities and colleges are shifting their financial aid from low-income students to high-income ones to bolster their prestige and raise them up the rankings, a new report says.

Meanwhile, according to the report by the nonprofit, nonpartisan New America Foundation, universities are leaving their poorest families to vie for a piece of billions of dollars in taxpayer-funded Pell Grants.

As families pack the 18-year-olds off for college right about now, they've hopefully confronted the cost of tuition, room and board, and health care. Then there's the cost of textbooks. One estimate figures the average is $600 for books and materials per year, another estimate runs twice that. Some students save money by renting or buying used textbooks. Others, given the cost, don't get the books at all.

In Washington D.C. this week, House lawmakers advanced a bill that could make it easier for students and families to manage debt by combining four college tax benefits into a single one. The idea, supporters say, is to reduce some of the confusion that exists around paying for college. Despite current tax credits, student loan debt in the United States has skyrocketed over $1 trillion.

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