Byline: LAUREN SMITH
Public colleges often blame their tuition increases on state lawmakers who the colleges say have not given them enough extra money to keep up with rising costs. But this year, many states' public colleges received sizable infusions of public money and then went ahead and raised tuition anyway.
In nearly half of the states, both state appropriations for higher education and public-college tuitions rose by 5 percent or more, substantially faster than inflation. In Colorado, for example, tuition jumped by 14.6 percent at the University of Colorado's Boulder campus and by 7.7 percent at the university's Colorado Springs campus, even though state lawmakers increased spending on higher education by 8.4 percent. Meanwhile, Nevada's public universities increased their tuition by 10.9 percent, despite receiving a 6.4-percent increase in their tax-dollar support for the 2007-8 fiscal year.
In more than a dozen of the states where tuition did not rise as much, public colleges had little say over the matter because lawmakers had passed legislation limiting how much such institutions could raise tuition or freezing tuition at current levels.
The explanations for why public colleges continued to increase tuition despite getting more tax-dollar support vary from state
to state. But Arthur M. Hauptman, an independent consultant on higher-education policy, says, "The relationship between fees and funding may not be as direct as we think." While reductions in state spending on higher education tend to send tuition skyward quickly, Mr. Hauptman says, major increases in spending do not always cause tuition to level off or go back down.
Repairing Past Damage
In some states, tuition has continue d to rise because public colleges are still repairing the damage done to their budgets during the last economic downturn.
"You would think it would be reasonable to think that tuition will decrease when state support increases, and that is usually the case," says Sandy Baum, a senior policy analyst at the College Board and a financial-aid consultant at Skidmore College. "But here we might just be playing a catch-up game.
"I think a lot of places have been doing a lot of cutting," Ms. Baum says, "and even if appropriations go up, it's going to be hard for them not to say, Well, now we need to make up for what's been lost in recent years."
Such is the case in Virginia, where lawmakers voted this year to increase spending on higher education by 5.3 percent in hopes of holding tuition down, but tuition in the coming academic year nonetheless increased by an average of 6.8 percent at public four-year colleges and by 5.9 percent at community colleges.
The continued growth of tuition makes more sense when one considers that Virginia cut its planned higher-education appropriation for the 2002-4 biennium by nearly $300-million, or 22 percent, higher-education officials say. The University of Virginia alone suffered a $51-million reduction in its annual state appropriation, a loss that Colette Sheehy, the university's vice president for management and budget, says her institution is still making up for.
"So when the legislature says, Oh gee, we're giving you all this general-fund money, why do you have to increase tuition? -- I mean, they haven't even given us back what we lost," Ms. Sheehy says.
In other states, public colleges are increasing tuition to pay for efforts, such as increasing faculty salaries, to become more competitive.
The University of Hawaii system's Board of Regents, raised tuition by nearly 20 percent for this academic year -- despite a 12.2-percent increase in the system's state support -- as part of a six-year plan to bring tuition at its campuses up to the level of peer institutions. As a result, its students were expected to pay 19 percent, or $816, more per year at Manoa; 18 percent, or $528, more at Hilo; 18 percent, or $480, more at West Oahu; and 13 percent, or $168, more at the system's community colleges.
Ironically, tuition spiked in some states as a direct result of policies intended to provide students with tuition relief.
In Georgia lawmakers agreed to give public colleges a 10.5-percent increase in their state support -- the biggest such jump in a dozen years -- and tuition nonetheless rose by as much as 15.5 percent at public universities.
Higher-education officials placed much of the blame for the tuition increases on a 2006 law that guarantees students entering public colleges as freshmen that their tuition bills will not grow over the next four years.
"We had to put enough of a bump in that tuition so that we could cover costs estimated over a four-year period," says William R. Bowes, vice chancellor for fiscal affairs of the University System of Georgia.
A growing number of states are adopting such guarantees, but higher-education experts question whether they actually do much to save students money. That is especially true for those students who drop out of college after a year or two, and would have been better off paying tuition bills that rose over time.
State efforts to cap or freeze tuition, meanwhile, may do little to dampen the forces driving tuition up and simply set the stage for exceptionally large tuition increases as soon as the restrictions are lifted.
Some public colleges are experimenting with ways to charge students varying amounts based on the actual cost of educating them in their field of study. Colleges do that by charging additional fees for certain courses where the cost of instruction is especially high. Critics worry, however, that such policies will price students out of particular programs and curtail minority enrollments in certain fields.
As the price of attending public colleges continues to climb, university officials say they sense an alienation from their state legislators.
"It's easy to understand why legislators feel like they're pouring more and more money into it, but campuses feel like they don't have more money," Ms. Baum says. "I don't think it's that campuses don't care about keeping tuition down -- they do. But they are also intensely aware of how much it costs to carry on this operation in a reasonable way."