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GUEST COLUMN: Effective ways to control college costs

By: Linda Shoemaker and Heidi Ganahl
February 15, 2018 Updated: February 15, 2018 at 4:05 am
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We have a unique perspective on college affordability that not many students or parents get, but it is one we're happy to share.

Our insight comes first and foremost as parents and grandparents of current college students, recent, and not-so-recent graduates. We've done all the things parents and students do to navigate the maze of higher education, from pre-admission to graduation. We also serve on the University of Colorado Board of Regents (and its finance committee), the elected board that oversees Colorado's flagship university system. The dual perspectives offer insight that may prove useful.

One of the bedrock lessons we've learned is that students, families and the university all have a role in college affordability.

Students can help themselves long before arriving on campus by earning college credit in high school. Advanced Placement courses, International Baccalaureate programs and community college courses are a great head start on a four-year degree. Students can also get a leg up by researching costs associated with different majors, such as books and other fees. CU is exploring Open Educational Resources, which could provide an alternative to high textbook costs.

Room and board is another aspect of college. While many institutions require students to live on campus their first year, options open after that. Families should create a room and board plan for their students that anticipates costs and eyes savings.

Students should also think about selecting a degree based on workforce needs so they can maximize a return on their investment. Some are obvious, such as computer science, business, health care and engineering. Others are less so, including cybersecurity, teaching and nursing. Additionally, many people succeed with skills grounded in liberal arts programs such as psychology, communications, English and history. Evidence increasingly shows that general skills such as analyzing, distilling and communicating information - hallmarks of liberal arts programs - are particularly valuable in a rapidly changing career landscape.

Once students arrive at college, they should take full advantage of counseling services to ensure they stay on track for graduation. CU campuses offer sophisticated counseling services and software to guide students toward completion as efficiently as possible. Obviously, the less time spent at school, the lower the cost.

There is much talk about student loan debt, but a four-year degree from a public university is definitely affordable and of great value. At CU, resident students who graduate with debt (some 63 percent of graduates system-wide) carry an average of $28,291 in debt. That's less than the average new car loan. Student loan repayment for CU graduates averages 4-7 percent of their annual earnings for 10 years.

The investment in a college education is perhaps the best one a person will make. College graduates earn an average of $1.4 million more over their wage-earning lives than non-graduates. The worst thing is taking on debt without a degree to show for it. The university also helps here. CU awards some $184 million in internally generated financial aid annually, helping ensure it remains affordable and accessible.

As leaders at CU, we do what we can to keep tuition affordable for students and families. We are proud of the work being done to realize efficiencies and keep tuition in check.

Over the past decade, we have worked with Colorado legislators to secure legislation that allows us to operate more efficiently and effectively. A decade's worth of legislation - ranging from changing procurement practices to streamlining construction approval - saves millions (some $112 million over the past three years). We've streamlined bureaucracy, continue to cut red tape and institute better business practices. CU's administrative overhead is more than 20 percent below the national peer average.

We continually look for ways to help our students and families. We introduced a four-year guaranteed tuition program on our Boulder campus that locks in a rate for four years, bringing certainty to college financial planning. The campus also eliminated program and course fees, effective next fall.

We know from personal experience that students and families can do many things to help with college affordability. We also know from our work on the Board of Regents that universities have an even bigger role. Together, we can ensure we deliver degrees our students deserve and our society demands, and do so in ways that are as cost-effective as possible.

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Heidi Ganahl represents the state at large on the CU Board of Regents. Linda Shoemaker represents the Second Congressional District. They are chair and vice chair, respectively, of the Regents Finance Committee.

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