UC gets props in college affordability report

Posted at 9:44 AM, Oct 05, 2015
and last updated 2015-10-05 09:44:51-04

COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Ohio's colleges and universities can -- and should -- be doing more to fight back against ballooning student debt, according to a new report from Gov. John Kasich’s office.

The report, released Thursday by the Kasich-appointed Task Force on College Affordability and Efficiency, says that despite being a national leader in limiting tuition increases, Ohio trails in managing student debt:

“Too many graduates leave Ohio universities with a heavy burden of student debt. Other students fail to complete their degrees. More of our graduates carry student debt than is true nationally, and the average debt load is larger than for graduates nationwide.”

From 2003 to 2013, the percentage of students graduating with debt in Ohio rose 7 percent, and the average debt those students carry rose by 47 percent, reaching $28,010.

While the panel cannot require reforms, the major recommendations in the report call for universities to divert more funds into college affordability and create a five-year plan for efficiency savings.

Other recommendations included consolidating or privatizing non-academic services such as dining or parking, or providing incentives for students to take a full load of courses.

“I appreciate the time, expertise and focus that my fellow task force members devoted to this study," said task force member and Ohio Senate President Keith Faber, R-Celina. "I look forward to working with our colleges and universities as we review and implement changes to help our students obtain an affordable, quality education and be successful as they enter the workforce.”

Not Just Tuition

While cutting costs and controlling tuition are a huge factor in college affordability, there are other important elements to consider.

In one section, detailing best practices for purchasing contracts, the University of Cincinnati was cited as a model for the state in textbook purchasing. UC hires negotiators in its division of Administration and Finance to help barter with publishers get lower bulk rates on textbooks.

The result? UC students are expected to save up to $500,000 on textbooks alone this semester.

Gigi Escoe, vice provost for Undergraduate Affairs at UC, said that they’ve started by first guaranteeing students in courses with required online materials -- such as science and accounting courses -- don’t have to pay for those materials themselves. Instead, a lower fee appears on the student’s bill.

She said the difference in costs is night and day.

“We’re really getting significant financial savings," she said. "And because students cannot choose to not to have those materials, which are often required for homework, we’re seeing improvements in grades as well."

UC started small and is expanding to more courses with more publishers. Escoe testified to the task force on how this model could be shared with other large public universities around the state.

“Faculty and administrators at every university want to help their students. They were once students, and some are parents, so they understand the cost and debt that goes onto students,” she said. “I won’t claim we’ve solved all the problems, but we’re making progress.”

Ben Postlethwait is a fellow in the E.W. Scripps School of Journalism Statehouse News Bureau. You can reach him via email or follow him on Twitter @BCPostlethwait