States Struggling to Slow Tuition Growth

By: - May 1, 2012 12:00 am

Arizona has led the nation in tuition increases over the past 5 years. Next year, the cost will be frozen. Is tuition growth slowing? (Joshua Lott/Getty Images)

No state has seen a larger percentage tuition increase in the past few years than Arizona, which nearly doubled its average rates at public universities between 2007 and 2011. But four straight years of double-digit increases are coming to an end in 2012, at least for the state’s two largest universities, with a freeze on tuition and fees next fall at the University of Arizona and Arizona State.

“The last few years have been tough for everybody,” says Bob McClendon, chairman of the Arizona Board of Regents. “I’m an educator myself. I would never have believed that I would be voting for increases like the last few years.”

This year’s freeze, the first in 20 years, was announced in early April, well before legislators and Governor Jan Brewer ended a weeks-long budget standoff. If approved, the deal reached by the governor and legislators last week would increase higher education spending.

Even with more state funding, both the University of Arizona and Arizona State will have to make sacrifices. At Arizona State, for example, faculty and staff will go without salary increases to allow for flat tuition.

 “Funding for public schools in Arizona has not been at the forefront for quite some time,” McClendon says. “That’s going to have to change.”

Gentler Hikes 

Not many states will be seeing an all-out freeze like the one being talked about in Arizona.  But tuition increases at public colleges may be slightly lower overall this year than last. While average tuition and fees at four-year colleges increased in every state in 2011, according to the College Board, at an across-the-board average of 7.4 percent, early returns suggest the number won’t be that high in 2012.

At the University of Colorado, the expected tuition increase of 5 percent is less than had been anticipated earlier this year and represents the smallest hike in more than five years. Tuition at the University of Idaho will go up by 6.1 percent, a smaller percentage increase than last year. In both cases, increased state funding for higher education is a key factor in mitigating the hikes.

All of this is coming at a moment of heightened national attention to the issue of college affordability. President Obama called on state leaders and colleges to increase support for higher education and keep tuition down in a January speech at the University of Michigan and in remarks to governors and college leaders at separate meetings at the White House. 

Republican governors, including Virginia’s Bob McDonnell and Iowa’s Terry Branstad, have made similar pitches about tuition in recent months.

But even if this attention helps contribute to lower tuition increases this year, Jennifer Ma, an independent policy analyst for the College Board, says it can’t undo the past several years.

“It’s really cumulative changes that have made a difference,” she says.

In the past five years, tuition and fees, adjusted for inflation, have increased by more than one-third in 16 states, according to data from the College Board. While room and board costs haven’t increased quite as rapidly, those living costs have increased faster than the rate of inflation as well.

No Relief in Florida 

Some states have been unable to get off the tuition escalator. Next year, for the first time, many students at the University of South Florida will be covering more of their educational costs than the state will.

That’s the message Ralph Wilcox, provost of the University of South Florida System, gave earlier this month at a meeting of USF trustees. The shift comes after years of cuts to the university’s state appropriation. The university’s main Tampa campus is slated to receive $105 million less from the state in the next academic year than it did five years ago, and the system anticipates increasing tuition by 15 percent, the maximum allowable under the law, for the third straight year.

“This is a horrible trend,” says Matt Diaz, student body president at the University of South Florida. “I feel like the state’s trying to privatize higher education….We’re voters, too. At some point you’re going to break the backs of students to where you see it in the polls.”

USF would join public universities in at least 20 states where tuition covers a higher percentage of educational costs than the state does, according to the State Higher Education Executive Officers (SHEEO). “State support hasn’t been able to keep up with enrollment growth and inflation,” says Paul Lingenfelter, president of SHEEO.

Maryland’s “Doomsday” Problem 

One state that has focused its attention on keeping tuition affordable finds itself in a different position this year. Over the past five years, Maryland has had the smallest percentage increase in tuition and fees of any state in the country, according to College Board data. Tuition in Maryland has gone up by less than 10 percent in that time.

Officials at the university say that’s because Governor Martin O’Malley made affordable tuition a priority – providing them enough funding to avoid major increases. But as next year’s budget currently stands, Maryland students could be in store for a double-digit tuition hike.

When Maryland’s legislative session ended in early April, legislators failed to pass an income tax increase that would pay for increased spending in the budget, possibly putting into effect a so-called “doomsday” budget that would result in hundreds of millions of dollars of cuts, including a $50 million cut to the University of Maryland system. O’Malley has indicated that he plans to call a special session by mid-May to avert that scenario. “The budget as it currently stands would do a lot of damage,” he told reporters last week.

But the possibility of those cuts has the university community scrambling to press its case to legislators and the public. In addition to efforts by university leaders, more than 1,200 students have used the university system’s legislative alert system, known as CapWiz, to send e-mails and letters to legislators protesting the potential cut in university funding.

 “For years the governor and legislature have been supportive of higher education,” says Andy Clark, director of legislative affairs for the University System of Maryland. “We’d like to see that good work continue.”

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