To some extent, the perception of college affordability is in the eye of the beholder. But a new draft legislative report compared the cost of attending the University of Connecticut to other states’ flagship universities and found that the rising price at UConn is less severe because of the state’s higher-than-average median income. But the price definitely has gone up.

The draft report presented to the Program Review and Investigations Committee Thursday concluded that when stacked against 50 other flagship universities, UConn tends to compare favorably because of the higher median income in the state.

“UConn’s affordability is relatively favorable because its prices are viewed in the context of the state’s high income levels,” the report concluded.

On a scale of one to 50, with one being the highest share of income and 50 being the lowest, it found that UConn ranks 30th regarding tuition and fees; 34th regarding comprehensive costs; 43rd regarding total price for a student living on-campus; and 39th regarding average net price for a student receiving a grant or scholarship.

Christine Stuart photo

Sen. John Kissel, R-Enfield, who co-chairs the committee, wanted to know if the staff could exclude income data from Fairfield county and see if that makes a difference in the affordability scale. 

“Without sounding like I’m stereotyping a certain area of our state, in so many ways Fairfield County skews the numbers,” Kissel said.

He said he knows that constituents in his part of the state are still struggling and making sacrifices. He also asked the staff to dig deeper into the issue of why a college education costs so much more than the rate of inflation. He said he understands that it’s not only the University of Connecticut, but all the institutes of higher education in the nation that have seen an increase in rates.

The report found that there are many reasons cited in literature for the increase in tuition costs. Some cost increase are related to competition where colleges compete with each other to increase their ratings in publicized guides, and other costs are related to an increase in administrators or other financial pressures. Researchers said the exact causes of the price increase at UConn will be included in a final draft of the report.

“This has a ripple effect on our entire society,” Kissel said after telling the story about a young couple graduating from private colleges with $250,000 in student loan debt.

He said his constituents are telling him that UConn, a public land grant university, used to be financially attainable, but that’s not the case today.

“Despite its relative affordability to in-state students, UConn reasonably might not be perceived as affordable to some families, especially those unaware or uncertain of financial aid,” the report found. “For example, UConn’s comprehensive cost would have required 33 percent of the pre-tax median household income in 2011-12. In the same year, tuition and fees alone would have consumed 77 percent of the income for the mean household in the state’s lowest income quintile.”

However, a group of six University of Connecticut students who attended the hearing with UConn President Susan Herbst later testified that the university is affordable. All but one of the students was attending the university on scholarships or grants that covered most or all of their tuition.

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Kevin Alvarez, a sophomore from Colchester, testified Thursday before the committee that neither his sister nor his brother graduated from UConn with a penny of debt to their names. However, according to the report, they would be the exception rather than the norm.

The report found that UConn had a higher percentage of graduates with debt than the flagship median.

“The percent of UConn graduates with debt has grown from 58 percent to 63 percent over the last 11 years, while the median flagship university percentage has declined since 2001 and remained approximately the same since 2003 — at about 50 percent,” the report found.

The average amount of debt for a UConn graduate is around $23,822, according to the report. The default rate on the UConn loans was about 2.3 percent, which is just under the flagship median.

Herbst and her team touted the increase in financial aid from $17 million in 1996 to $85 million today. A UConn spokeswoman said about 80 percent of the students who attend the university receive some form of financial aid.

During her testimony before the committee, Herbst said the state’s support for the university has dropped about $41.6 million since 2008. That doesn’t take into account the amount of borrowing the state is doing on behalf of the university in order to help it expand. This year, the state legislature approved $1.5 billion in bonding for the university.

Sen. Toni Boucher, the ranking Republican onthe legislature’s Higher Education Committee, testified that the cost of attending UConn for an in-state student living on campus exceeds $23,000, not counting $116 in new fees.

“This year alone, the cost of a college degree at UConn has gone up by almost 11 percent,” Boucher said, adding that the tuition increase in 2011 and the 5.1 percent mandatory fee increase last February have driven up education costs.

Her solution would be giving the university the ability to negotiate salaries and benefits with their employees, rather than leaving that authority with the governor and a union coalition.

A final report is expected to be completed by the start of the next legislative session in February.