College classes begin at Arizona's three state universities in the next 10 days, and the key question may be whether enrolling students can afford a college education.

While the state's schools won't have a tuition increase this academic year for the first time in 20 years, tuition has risen 275 percent in the last decade, and students are taking on more debt than ever to complete their educations.

Several advocates for improved student finance say they hope to help pass the proposed Proposition 204, which would create a one-cent sales tax, with 80 percent of the proceeds permanently dedicated to funding education.

Dan Sullivan, communications director for the Arizona Students' Association, a lobbying group, says in an Arizona Week interview that passing the initiative will help reduce the assault "on all fronts, at the state level, the federal level" that students have faced.

"Over summer we saw that interest rates could have doubled," Sullivan says. "We saw Pell Grants attacked. We saw [state] legislation this session that would have made [all students] pay an extra $2,000 out of pocket toward tuition."

"The picture is tuition has gone up about 200 percent -- more than 200 percent -- [and] state-based financial aid is nowhere," he says. "So the only place students have to turn is student loans."

The federal Pell Grant program provides aid based on financial need to undergraduates and some graduate students in teacher certification programs.

Congress rejected cuts in the Pell Grant program and acted at the last minute this summer to stop the interest rate on the federal student loan program from doubling. It is 3.4 percent, and expiration of the legislation controlling the rate was about to expire.

Congress renewed it, but only for undergraduates. Thus, graduate students pay higher, unsubsidized interest, meaning they accumulate interest from the day they obtain their loans. Undergraduate loan interest is covered by the federal government until after graduation.

"Most graduate students are not eligible for Pell grants," says Rhian Stotts, president of the Graduate Student and Professional Association at Arizona State University. "The only type of aid that's available to all graduate students is student loans."

What that means is additional indebtedness for students who go on to graduate school, Stotts tells Arizona Week. In Arizona, college graduates leave school with bachelor's degrees and about $21,000 in debt. Those who go on to graduate school add nearly $45,000 to that, she says.

Students are coalescing to push Proposition 204, says University of Arizona student body president Katy Murray. In the proposal, $150 million would be set aside annually for college student financial aid.

Arizona state government currently operates the Arizona Financial Aid Trust, which provides $16 million a year in college student financial aid, about 1 percent of all aid in the state, according to the Arizona Board of Regents.

That ranks the state last in college financial aid, Murray says.

"In a state where we're 50th in state-based financial aid, I look at it as we can only go forward and up from here," Murray says.

"We're working on the Quality Education and Jobs Act, to try to get that passed with the Arizona Students' Association this fall, because that will bring millions in financial aid and scholarships money for community and university students," she says.

More resources:

Read the Arizona Board of Regents annual report on student finance here.

Read Quality Education and Jobs Act here: View at Google Docs | Download File

Read a National Public Radio report on college debt and financial aid here.