Why Alabama can’t control college tuition costs
A sign for Auburn University seen on Aug. 14, 2023, in Auburn, Ala. Behind the sign is William J. Samford Hall. Brian Lyman/Alabama Reflector
States have varying degrees of control over the tuition price of their public higher education institutions. Alabama has none.
Under Alabama law, higher education institutions set tuition and fees for students. The state government cannot control those increases, and one of the legislature’s education budget chairs says moving in that direction would require an overhaul of the higher education system.
According to a June 2023 report by the State Higher Education Executive Officers Association (SHEEO), 60% of states have limited or frozen four-year tuition rate increases in the last five years. While some Alabama schools institutions have frozen their tuition they did so on their own initiative, not from state mandates.
Dustin Weeden, associate vice president at SHEEO, said there’s no general rule for the control states have over the pricing of their institutions. But a state like Georgia, with a single state system, tends to have more control.
“States are really all over the place on this, and in large part, it’s probably all of their tuition setting policies are probably grown out of their own political and economic and perhaps even demographic circumstances,” he said.
Weeden said a model that he likes is Tennessee’s structure. In the Volunteer State, a commission sets a range for how much tuition can increase in a given year. Weeden said that the discretion provided to institutions allows them to make the best decisions for their universities.
Flagship universities often can raise tuition and not worry about how it could impact enrollment. Smaller institutions may need to have more modest price increases to keep students applying.
“It gives the state some oversight, and they have control over the ultimate, like the cap for the year, but it also gives institutions some flexibility under that cap to figure out where their particular needs are to fit in to make sure that they have the revenue they need to be high quality institutions,” he said.
He said that institutions argue that they can set tuition prices for their own revenue needs.
The downside of states not having control over tuition, he said, is that tuition costs can keep rising.
“A few states have decentralized tuition and given the authority to institutions and what has tended to happen is the institutions have increased tuition at fairly sizable rates, following that deregulation on tuition,” he said.
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Jim Purcell, executive director of the Alabama Commission of Higher Education, said that he has in the past asked the Alabama Legislature about a mechanism that would require institutions to stay below a certain level of increase in order to access Education Trust Fund allotments.
“The way the state is designed now, for higher ed, we don’t have the authority to say that that rate is adequate or inadequate,” he said.
Colleges and universities in Alabama can operate under different legal frameworks. The University of Alabama and Auburn University are named in the state Constitution and have self-perpetuating boards of trustees. By contrast, Alabama State University and Alabama A&M, two historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU), were overseen by the Alabama State Board of Education for decades, and only granted boards of trustees in the mid-1970s.
Rep. Danny Garrett, R-Trussville, who chairs of the House Ways and Means Education Committee, said that other states have Boards of Regents, which oversee the higher education institutions.
“That’d be a huge change if we were to go to that,” he said.
Garrett said that he would have a lot of questions if the legislature were to start getting involved in how institutions set their pricing.
“Nobody has really raised that issue,” he said. “I would have a lot of concerns or questions about it.”
Garrett said that universities have boards and trustees, so he would need to know why that would need to be changed. He’s also not sure that lawmakers would need to be involved on institutional levels.
When asked if the legislature had other avenues to help with tuition, such as student aid or scholarships, Garrett pointed to the community college system and said they have increased funding for higher education. He also said that, in the current economy, not every job requires a four-year degree.
“I think higher education is evolving,” he said. “The higher education model is evolving, and I think the use of higher education is evolving. And I would be very reluctant for the state to interject itself into that evolution.”
Alabama Reflector is part of States Newsroom, a national nonprofit news organization.
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