JOPLIN, Mo. —
Eli Moran remembers paying for his first semester at Missouri Southern State University entirely out of his pocket.
“That sucked,” said Moran, a freshman majoring in psychology, of the $3,200 price tag for his tuition and books. “It killed me because I had bills, too. I had to do it, but I didn’t really get much luxury. I had to cut back on expenses.”
Moran, of Joplin, is not the only student to have struggled with the costs of college. The sticker price of in-state tuition at four-year public universities across the country climbed about $400 this fall, an increase of nearly 5 percent that brought the average to $8,655.
The latest annual figures from the College Board show only about one-third of full-time students pay that published price. The estimated net price — what students pay on average after accounting for grants and tax credits — remains considerably lower than the list price: about $2,910 for tuition at public four-year universities.
But after several years when a wave of student aid from Washington held net prices mostly in check, real costs for students have now jumped two straight years.
Officials at both Missouri Southern State University and Pittsburg (Kan.) State University say they have noticed that sticker price going up locally — and they’re not sure it’s likely to change soon.
At MSSU, an in-state student taking 12 hours per semester pays $2,033 in tuition. The university has increased tuition by roughly $26.50 per credit hour over the past two years.
“The trends are going to be (that costs of) higher education are going up,” said MSSU’s Darren Fullerton, vice president for student affairs and enrollment management. “State economies are getting better, but again, the demands on the state budget are getting greater, and you’re seeing rising costs in a number of areas. So unfortunately, I don’t see much of a reversal in fortune for higher education.”
Fullerton said most MSSU students are eligible for state and federal grants, and other types of financial aid, but most also work outside of school to support themselves.
“I think students as a whole would tell you that they are struggling,” he said.
Bill Ivy, associate vice president of enrollment management and student success at PSU, said costs have “definitely” gone up in recent years. An undergraduate paying in-state rates spends $2,193 this fall, about $127 more than last year.
Ivy said that in the past five years, the university has made more scholarships available, but students are also taking out more loans than in previous years. The increases in student costs, he said, help compensate for rises in the university’s fixed costs, such as health insurance and utilities, as well as a leveling off or decrease in state funding.
“I don’t see a lot of indication that that would change,” he said. “I don’t know that we can count on significant increases in state support for the general programs.”
The report largely blames state cuts for rising tuition. According to the College Board — a not-for-profit membership group that promotes college access and owns the SAT exam — state funding per student to higher education has now declined four straight years, and is down 26 percent over the past five years.
Moran, the MSSU student, said he became eligible for a federal grant that covers his tuition for the current semester, decreasing his out-of-pocket expenses to about $400 for books. He said that if he hadn’t gotten that aid, he could not have returned for his second semester.
Jarrett Epperson, an MSSU sophomore from Webb City, said scholarships and grants pay for most of his tuition. But he would not be able to afford college without that help, he said.
“If I didn’t have the government paying for it, I wouldn’t be here,” he said. “As of right now, I’m in a good situation, but I know other people might not get as much.”
Joshua King, a first-semester MSSU student from Joplin, echoed those sentiments. Federal grants cover most of his tuition, and he has taken out a loan to cover the rest. He said he would like to see higher education receive more financial support from its funding sources, including the state government.
The rising costs of college are also a political hot topic, with President Barack Obama boasting that the broad expansion of federal student aid during his term has helped cushion the blow from sharp funding cuts from the states. His Republican challenger, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, argues increased aid from Washington has encouraged colleges to charge more.
Both candidates for Missouri governor, incumbent Jay Nixon and his challenger, Dave Spence, have focused their campaigns on education.
Nixon has heralded the actions he’s taken over the past four years to address higher education costs. He has expanded the A+ Schools program, which provides participants with two years of free tuition at in-state community colleges, and launched initiatives that help colleges and universities train students for careers in specific fields, such as health care.
In a statement emailed to the Globe, Nixon said he would continue to pursue those programs if he is re-elected Tuesday.
“Every student in Missouri deserves the opportunity to get an affordable education that prepares them for a rewarding career in a high-demand field,” he said.
On his campaign website, Spence said, among other things, that the state should work with trade schools and community colleges to broaden options for students who want to begin their careers without attending traditional four-year schools.
“A Spence administration would make higher education funding a budgetary priority, driving down the cost of higher education,” he said through a statement released to the Globe.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
“If I didn’t have financial aid, I wouldn’t be able to go to school,” said Josh King, a first-semester student at Missouri Southern State University. “I don’t make any reasonable amount of money to afford to go to school.”