University of Utah trustee Michele Mattsson cringes every March, and not because her beloved Utes fail to get into basketball’s Big Dance.
The bigger problem is the seemingly never-ending rise in tuition, and next year will be no exception. On Tuesday, U. trustees approved the school’s portion of what is expected to be another 7 percent boost in the cost of attending Utah’s flagship, which would push tuition past $6,000 a year. Mattsson and others are concerned that the escalating price tag, double what it was in 2003, is inflicting real harm by further depressing graduation rates as more student find jobs to pay for school.
A shifting burden
Over the past decade, a larger share of the cost of higher education has been shifted to students. Students’ share of the overall revenue stream for instruction, in the form of tuition and fees, rose from 31.5 percent in 2002 to nearly 48.8 percent in 2011-12, while the state’s share fell from 62.7 to 50.7 percent, according to Utah System of Higher Education data.
"We really have to tighten our belts. The students have really suffered. I would caution that we work hard and do everything we can to stop this trend," said Mattsson, a lawyer and past president of the U. alumni association, during a trustees meeting on campus.
U. students, meanwhile, wonder why the windfall associated with Pac 12 membership isn’t used to curb tuition, according to student trustee Neela Pack. Still, she was pleased administrators reserved more U. employment for students, which helps keep working students on campus.
"A lot are trying to find jobs. When you are going to school and working it leaves no time for extracurricular involvement. One thing that makes college a great experience is that involvement," said Pack, a political science and economics major serving as this year’s student president.
Trustees also approved a schedule of parking fee increases, which are expected to double over the next decade. The fees will pay for two new parking structures, which were OK’d last week by the Legislature. Officials kept other fee hikes to a minimum thanks to Pack’s advocacy, according to U. President David Pershing. A few other fees will rise, but only to accommodate long-term plans for transportation, arts passes and other student amenities.
But tuition is the trustees’ main concern. Every year, Utah students foot a rising share of the state’s higher education bill. Over the past decade, for example, tuition and fees have risen from 30 percent to nearly 48 percent of the U.’s overall revenue stream for instruction, while the state’s share slipped from 67 to 50 percent, according to Utah System of Higher Education data.
Every March, the next year’s tuition is set for public college and universities, whose trustees make recommendations to the state Board of Regents. Tuition hikes are based on a two-tier structure, with Regents determining the first tier, or portion common to all eight public schools. Regent leadership has signaled it will set the first-tier increase at 5 percent, according to U. and Utah State University administrators.
Both schools intend to seek second-tier tuition increases that will place their overall hikes at no more than 7 percent. That would translate into annual in-state tuition of $6,259 and $5,068 at the U. and Utah State University, respectively, not including fees, which amount to another $900 or so. Out-of-state tuition is roughly triple at most Utah universities. U. administrators will explain the proposed increases at a "truth in tuition" hearing, set for March 22.
Rising tuition is a national problem, linked to both rising costs and shrinking state support for higher education. President Barack Obama has challenged institutions to rein in prices or risk losing access to federal support.
While a university education remains relatively cheap in Utah, the same cannot be said for the community college experience, which is increasingly provided by the state’s regional universities. Obtaining an associate’s degree is more costly here than in most other states, a problem that is exacerbated by a lack of need-based aid.
The "good" news in Utah is that the proposed increases are less steep than those imposed the past three years, likely a reflection of a modest spike in state funding after four years of declining appropriations and austerity measures. But the tuition hike would still be twice the rate of inflation.
"We can say we are the most affordable university in the Pac 12. So what? Let’s not use that as an excuse to continue to ratchet up tuition," said U. trustees chairman Clark Ivory. "Our goal is to be one of the best values in the United States."
Administrators say revenue from the U.’s second-tier hike will be devoted to bolstering student support services, particularly aid for low-income students. An ongoing capital campaign has raised more than $100 million to endow scholarships, which will help defray some of the tuition burden. But many U. students are in no position to access this merit-driven support, trustees observed, even though they need it badly.
"The next $15 million [raised for scholarships] needs to go not just to students who are excelling, but students who are the average Joe or Jane, the student who is trying hard to balance employment with getting through the university," Ivory said.
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