Hard Times Call for Tuition Freeze at Public Universities

July 7, 2009

For release noon July 7 and thereafter (669 words)

Indiana’s public universities are missing a golden opportunity to help Hoosier students. With the state’s unemployment rate at 10.6 percent and family income at a 35-year low, now is the time to freeze tuition. Instead, the cost of higher education keeps going up.

Ivy Tech plans a 4.9 percent tuition increase, about $140 for a full-time student. Indiana State has proposed 3.9 percent or $278. At Purdue University, students can expect to pay an additional 5 percent or $388. Indiana University and IUPUI students will pay 4.6 percent more or $382 and $332 respectively. The public gets 10 days to comment before rates are finalized.

The schools were waiting for two things to happen before setting tuition and fees: First, passage of a biennial budget by the legislature; and second, non-binding tuition recommendations from the Indiana Commission for Higher Education. The budget passed June 30 and essentially flatline funding. The commission recommendations, which came out July 2, urged universities to keep increases in a range of 0 to 5 percent.

That disappointed state Sen. Mike Delph, R-Carmel, who had hoped the commission would take a strong stand for a freeze. “To me and others in the legislature, any increase is unreasonable at this time,” he said.

Even before the recession, universities were under pressure to bring down prices. In 2005, the General Assembly passed a law requiring the schools to set tuition rates on a two-year cycle instead of annually. In 2007, lawmakers charged the commission with suggesting tuition targets for each university during the budget process. The goal was to increase price visibility for students and deter dramatic hikes.

Early indications are the laws lack teeth. Purdue University students at West Lafayette, for example, will see a hefty hike in the second year of the budget cycle. Although their 2009-10 tuition — $8,138 for resident students — is in line with the commission’s 5 percent targeted maximum, the 2010-11 proposal would increase tuition and fees to $9,070 for new freshmen and sophomores. That’s an 11 percent hike, more than double what the commission wanted. Purdue said the increase is justified by declining state appropriations and essential if it is to remain competitive as a major research university.

Technically, Purdue’s correct about declining state aid. Lawmakers reduced higher-education funding overall by 4 percent (8 percent in Purdue’s case) and then made up for the cut with one-time federal stimulus money. There’s no guarantee the 8 percent will be restored down the road so Purdue is proceeding on the assumption it won’t.

As Delph points out, Indiana’s universities have been spared funding cuts being imposed in states with worse budget problems. “And they are not facing increases in the inflation rate or cost-of-living that might otherwise justify an upward spiral in operating costs.” In fact, inflation is in the negative range.

In Indiana, individual university boards are responsible for setting tuition and fees. Elsewhere, statewide boards of regents establish rates for their entire system. That is the case in Maryland, where officials recently froze undergraduate tuition for a fourth straight year.

“This is the worst year to raise tuition because look at what’s happening to families,” said William E. Kirwan, chancellor of the Maryland system. “Loans are harder to get. Family members are losing jobs.”

On June 25, the Oklahoma State Regents for Higher Education also approved a freeze, the first since 2001. As in Indiana, Oklahoma’s state appropriation was cut this year but offset by federal stimulus money, keeping operating budgets level.

In Missouri, lawmakers and public universities struck a deal in which the state pledged to maintain funding at current levels in exchange for the universities’ promise to freeze tuition and fees for 2009-2010.

According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, at least 32 states have cut funding to public colleges. Indiana universities don’t seem to realize how good they’ve got it. A tuition freeze would have been a nice way of saying thank you — to lawmakers, taxpayers and tuition-paying families.

Andrea Neal is a teacher at St. Richard’s School in Indianapolis and adjunct scholar with the Indiana Policy Review Foundation. Contact her at aneal@inpolicy.org.


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