A committee of the University of Arkansas Board of Trustees will make recommendations this week after conducting an unusual hearing in which chancellors of the various campuses were asked to justify proposed increases in tuition and fees.
For too many years public boards have rubber-stamped proposed budgets for colleges and universities across the country, and that has resulted in increases above the cost of living rate and even the pace of rising medical costs.
As a result, student borrowing to finance college education has soared. Between 2006-12 federal student loans more than doubled, to $807 billion, according to Aaron N. Taylor, a law professor at St. Louis University, in a 2012 article, "Undo undue hardship: An objective approach to discharging federal student loans in bankruptcy." Student loans often aren’t even subject to bankruptcy proceedings.
There are reasons for the escalating cost of going to college. Traditionally, the budgets for operating a public college or university have been funded primarily by state government revenues, then supplemented by tuition and fees from the students who attend. But most states have been struggling to meet their budget demands, and higher education has usually been among the first cuts.
In March, the Association of State Higher Education Executive Officers reported that per student support from state and local sources declined last year to $5,896, the lowest level in 25 years when adjusted for inflation. This trend has happened at a time when enrollments at state-supported institutions have been climbing.
Thus, the colleges and universities have been asked to educate more students more efficiently.
Their answer, by and large, has been to raise tuition and fees. The executive officers report said that tuition and fees nationwide rose by 8.3 percent in the 2011-12 school year — to an average of $5,189, which was up to 47 percent of all institutional revenue.
It makes sense that college and university boards would start paying more attention to administrators’ requests for tuition and fee hikes. UA trustee Ben Hyneman of Jonesboro told a reporter at last week’s hearing that board members want to help keep costs down because "all eyes are on you."
"It may be wrong, but the perception is that we aren’t as tight as we could be," he said.
He’s right, of course, and the trustees, who are political appointees, have an understood obligation that they must represent all interests of the college community, as well as the taxpayer.
That’s what led the UA board’s Fiscal Affairs Committee to call four chancellors of the system’s four-year universities to explain and justify their proposals to increase tuition and fees by more than 3.5 percent. UA-Fayetteville was exempted since its request was "only" 3.5 percent, even though its total of $7,818 in tuition and fees will be the highest in the system and probably the state.
One campus is requesting fee increases of as much as 800 percent; the UA Community College at Morrilton wants to raise its public safety fee from $10 to $90.
In fact, public safety is obviously a great concern because three other community colleges in the system are asking for big increases percentage-wise in their public safety fees, and a fourth that hasn’t had one wants a $150 fee.
Otherwise, the community colleges are keeping their general requests at or below 3.5 percent. But the chancellors of the four-year schools all are asking for tuition and fees increases of at least 4.9 percent.
They said they are preparing for even tougher times in getting money from state government.
"With the recent action of the Legislature to lower taxes to stimulate the economy," UA-Fort Smith Paul B. Beran told the committee, "I think that the state budget is going to become increasingly lean for higher education within the next few years." His school is asking for a 10 percent increase in tuition and fees, including a new charge for a student wellness and recreation facility.
UA Trustee Jim Von Gremp of Rogers said the median family income in Arkansas is $41,000 and it rises about .2 percent per year, about $82. "How do we justify to families of students the kind of increase you are asking for?" he asked Beran.
The chancellor answered that a college education should be considered an investment in the future of the student’s life, unlike a new car or house.
Nevertheless, investments must be affordable, especially since the Arkansas General Assembly this year decided not to make much of an investment in higher education, even cutting lottery scholarships for entering freshmen from $4,500 to $2,500 for their first year.
Student retention becomes a major problem when colleges and universities price themselves out of the market, and that’s just the first of many problems.
College and university boards must serve as a check and balance for administrative and academic want lists, and the UA board has set a good example for all the others. Even a 3.5 percent increase should be justified and the reasons for it discussed in public.
Roy Ockert is editor emeritus of The Jonesboro Sun. He may be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.