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Chancellors of area colleges to be pressed on rising education costs and financial aid philosophies

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Oct. 28, 2009 - It’s been a busy month of news on the college-cost front. As a quick review:

  • Data released recently by the College Board show that tuition and fees continue to rise during the economic slump. Prices are rising fastest (6.5 percent over the past academic year) at public institutions, and the rates of increase across the board are sharper this year than in years past.
  • The silver lining is that many students don’t pay the full price of tuition, and the “net price” of earning a college degree hasn’t risen much in recent years, the report notes. Students often rely on a mix of grant aid and loans. At a time when credit is harder to come by, new data indicate that more student borrowers are relying on federal loans rather than private ones.
  • Meanwhile, the U.S. House of Representatives has passed a bill that would overhaul the financial aid system by ending the federal government’s subsidy of private lenders that make college loans. Instead, the lending would come directly from the federal government. (The Senate has yet to take up the bill.) The majority of colleges have not yet switched over to direct federal lending, and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan this week sent a letter to scores of institutions urging them to use the Direct Loan Program starting in the 2010-11 academic year.

With all this as a backdrop, Sen. Claire McCaskill held an open-mic discussion Friday in which students, parents, college financial aid counselors and other school officials sounded off on the rising cost of college and the difficulties of security financial aid.
Now there’s a chance to hear directly from the college leaders about their approaches to meeting students' financial aid demands. This Sunday at 2 p.m., The Scholarship Foundation of St. Louis is holding a session in which four chief executives are slated to appear: Chancellors Mark Wrighton of Washington University, Brady Deaton of the University of Missouri-Columbia and Zelema Harris of the St. Louis Community College, as well as Elizabeth Stroble, president and CEO of Webster University. The panel is being moderated by U.S. News and World Report senior writer Kim Clark.

The event is being held at the Center of Creative Arts (COCA), 524 Trinity Ave., in the Delmar Loop. Doors open at 1:30 p.m. Admission is free, but space is limited. Faith Sandler, executive director of The Scholarship Foundation of St. Louis, which is putting on the event, said roughly 250 people are confirmed to come thus far. The room seats up to 400 people.

Sandler said in addition to hearing about the increasing role community colleges are playing in educating students, she is interested to hear where the college leaders come down on the issue of need-based vs. merit-based financial aid. (The Scholarship Foundation, she said, is focused on identifying sources of aid for students in financial need).

"Institutions have some discretion in how they award their own dollars and compose their student bodies," Sandler said. "What we're asking leaders of these institutions to tell us is what are your priorities and how are you addressing students with financial need."

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