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EDITORIAL: Debt-free college education: A realistic story in Wyoming

Six out of 10 graduates at the University of Wyoming collect their degrees and go out into the world with zero college debt.

That was a statistic noted by UW President Laurie Nichols in Cody several weeks ago, speaking at an end-of-the-school year gathering in Park County. It was offered up in the context of her declaration that a high quality education is truly affordable at UW.

And how! At a time when stories abound of college loans dogging graduates for years after they enter the workforce, the affordability card ought to be powerful for Wyoming higher education — not only UW, but the community colleges as well.

Nichols has made enrollment growth a real push as the university seeks to grow its way out of some of the fallout of shrunken budgets at every level in the state. Locally, Northwest College is aggressively pursuing a similar value bid for students.

So what does a year of college cost in-state? The University of Wyoming posts its estimated Total Cost of Attendance for 2017-18 (resident tuition, fees, room and board and books) at $15,174 for the academic year.  When the budget items of travel and personal expense are included, that increases the UW Cost of Attendance estimate to just over $18,000 per year.

NWC’s Cost of Attendance for a full-time, resident student is estimated at $10,226 a year. When travel and personal expenses are included, the NWC estimate increases to $13,302 per year.  

Of course, most students don’t pay the full Cost of Attendance. Institutional scholarship assistance is available to the big majority, and for most graduates of Wyoming high schools going on to higher education in Wyoming, the state is a paying partner through its Hathaway Scholarship program.

In the academic year of 2015-16 — the most recent data available from UW — 55 percent of students graduated with no undergraduate student loan debt. For Wyoming students receiving Hathaway Scholarships, that number increased to 63 percent graduating with no student loan debt.

At NWC, only 19 percent of students even take out federal student loans.

The numbers are another validation of the Hathaway as a tremendous investment in Wyoming and its future. The Legislature conceived and funded the Hathaway Scholarship Endowment when times were good in Wyoming, and it will stand the test of time as one of the most visionary and significant legislative achievements.

Now, here’s some good news at a time when the financial picture in Wyoming can use a boost: The value of the Hathaway Scholarship Endowment has grown through the years at the same time that it is awarding over $16 million dollars a year in scholarships to Wyoming students.

The Legislature committed federal mineral royalties to the Hathaway Scholarship Fund until $400 million had been deposited, and the scholarship program was declared fully funded in 2007. Only investment earnings are available to the spending pool for scholarships, yet the earnings have outstripped scholarship awards in every year until 2016. The market value of the Hathaway Endowment Fund in 2016 was over $570 million.

The Legislature got it right with the Hathaway program. The Hathaway helps give college presidents and their teams a convincing affordability story to tell.

Now, more than ever, they need to tell it. And sell it.

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