By Uche Onyebadi
LAST week, most university students returned to class for the commencement of the new academic year. Usually, the first week of class is a dreaded moment for university administrators at various levels, but most especially the department student advisers.

They are the people who usually bear the brunt of the awkward wisdom of some students who believe that the only way to demonstrate that they are serious about their academic studies is to run to these advisers in a frantic, if not panic, move to register late for class.

The return to class however, goes with a lot of issues which these students are likely to face as the school year unfolds. Top on the list is the cost of university education. According to the US Department of Education statistics for the 2012-2013 academic year, the cost of tuition, room and boarding for an undergraduate student in a four-year public university was estimated at an average of $15,022 across the nation. For private nonprofit institutions, the figure was $39,173, and $23,158 for private for- profit institution.

A US News & World Report news items states that in the same period, the average debt burden for such students was anywhere between $23,000 and $30,000 upon graduation. If the student was a beneficiary of federal government loans, he or she was expected to start repaying the loans six months after graduation. To make matters more unpleasant, the average unemployment rate for the same cohorts of students was about 8.5 per cent. This issue of crippling loans for fresh graduates has become a national concern. While campaigning for election in 2008 President Obama revealed that he only managed to pay off his school loans when he became a US senator. Even now, the issue has caught the attention of the Democratic Party campaigners for the US presidency in 2016. During one of her campaign stops last month, candidate Hillary Clinton told her audience that “No family and no student should have to borrow to pay tuition at a public college or university. And everyone who has student debt should be able to finance it at lower rates.” She unveiled a $350 billion plan to deal with the issue of students’ loans and debt burden.

In an address to a group of college students outside the US Capitol in March, Hillary’s co-contestant, Senator Burnie Sanders, argued that “Higher education is a strategic investment in our nation’s future. Education should be a right, not a privilege. We need a revolution in the way that the United States funds higher education…..You are facing crushing student loan debt and that debt is causing irreparable harm to middle-class families across America.” Earlier, the Republican Party-controlled Senate voted to slash the Pell Grants to students in need by almost $90 billion in the next ten years. Also brushed aside by conservatives in the country was President Obama’s suggestion that all two-year colleges in the US should be tuition free.

The financial issues facing college students is made more complex by the budget woes several state governments are currently facing. A state like Illinois, for instance, still has no budget, long after its July budget year began. In his budget speech, Illinois Governor Bruce Rauner proposed a 31.5 percent cut in funds for higher education. This cut would further exacerbate the budget woes of public universities in the state. That budget cut proposal by the Republican governor has contributed to an impasse with the legislature led by House Speaker Michael Madigan and his majority Democrats in the Illinois Assembly.

A number of schools in the state have had to cut down on new faculty employment. They have also commenced the process of merging or closing some departments in order to weather the economic crunch. Others have laid off staff in order to stay afloat. Some of the scholarships and grants that were available to students have been whittled down or discontinued with altogether. For students, attending college has become a huge hassle.

Student enrolment

One of the impacts of this situation on college campuses is the decline in student enrollment. According to the US census bureau, between 2012 and 2013, college enrollment nationwide declined by 463,000, the second time in a row since the body began keeping such records in 1966. The total figure for the two-year drop was 930,000. Local universities in Illinois for instance, that only a few years ago boasted of a population of over twenty thousand students, are now struggling to have 17,000 to 18,000 student enrollment.

Here is how the White House web site summarized the trouble with higher education: “In higher education, the U.S. has been outpaced internationally. In 1990, the U.S. ranked first in the world in four-year degree attainment among 25-34 year olds; today, the U.S. ranks 12th. We also suffer from a college attainment gap, as high school graduates from the wealthiest families in our nation are almost certain to continue on to higher education, while just over half of our high school graduates in the poorest quarter of families attend college. And while more than half of college students graduate within six years, the completion rate for low-income students is around 25 percent.”

To keep themselves in school, a good number of students from low income families have to work at least one job and combine them with their school work. I have seen students who come to class with groggy eyes, a testimony that they worked all night. Some of them do not have enough resource to purchase textbooks and other materials they need for class.

But, how about foreign students in US universities? The statistics in this region is more impressive. It appears that while locals are dropping out of school, the number of foreign students tends to increase over the years. In Illinois, the latest report for Spring, 2015, shows that a total of 9,208 foreign students were studying in the state. Leading the table were students from China, South Korea and India.  Nigeria leads in Africa, with 33 students.

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