California not alone in passing on budget pain to public university students

The 550,000 students enrolled at the University of California and the California State University system have been served a steady diet of tuition and fee increases over the past few years.  In part to cope with a $350 million net cut in state support to both systems this year, a 32 percent increase for UC students — $1,929 — is scheduled to take effect in September – on the heels of a 9.3 percent increase in 2009. CSU increased tuition 30 percent in 2009. In September, tuition climbs another $403.  “It’s a tax increase on students. Plain and simple,” said former Lieutenant Governor John Garamendi, now an East Bay Congressman.

But while California has by far the biggest public higher education system in the country, its students aren’t the only ones seeing cost increases.  For the 2010 fiscal year, 48 states have either closed or still face record budget shortfalls totaling $194 billion, some 28 percent of all state budgets combined, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities in Washington D.C. In most of those states, spending for higher education has been reduced.

A study by the American Association of State Colleges and Universities found that in fiscal year 2009, which ended June 30 for 46 states, $292 less was being spent per public higher education student than the year before.  To compensate for the lower level of state spending and preserve the quality of education offered to students, public colleges and universities are boosting tuition.

From potential annual 15 percent increases for University of Florida students to a 14 percent hike at the University of Washington’s flagship campus, many of the nation’s public university students – and their parents — are bearing the brunt of the sour economy and its impact on state budgets.  “Around the country we’ve seen significant tuition increases. Unfortunately, what we’ve seen in the 2008-2009 fiscal year you’re going to be seeing a lot of the same coast-to-coast for the next three years,” said Daniel Hurley, director of relations and policy analysis for the for state colleges and universities association in Washington D.C.

The October 2009 College Board’s Trends in College Pricing found that nationally, the average tuition at a four-year public university is $429 higher than last year. Since 2005, the average tuition and fees at public four-year colleges and universities has risen by about 20 percent to $7,020.

But increased grants, financial aid and federal tax benefits over the same period lowered the net price for full-time by about $1,100, the College Board says.  Financial aid will prevent roughly half of UC and CSU students from shouldering the latest fee and tuition increases. About half of CSU undergraduates and one third of UC undergraduates won’t pay any fees because of financial aid, according to California’s Legislative Analyst’s office.  But families in the middle to upper income brackets will – as well as other costs. 

“The reality here in California is that this is an expensive state in which to live. And, like in other states, tuition and fees are only part of the story,” said Assemblyman Anthony Portantino, a Pasadena Democrat and chair of the lower house’s Higher Education Committee.  For this school year, which began in September 2009, tuition at UC is $9,285. But students living on campus also pay $12,600 for room and board and another $5,100 for textbooks and other expenses for a total of $26,985, according to CaliforniaColleges.edu.  At CSU, tuition and fees are $4,827. Adding other expenses brings the total for students living on campus to $19,576.  Nationally, the College Board found room and board at public four-year universities for in-state students to average $8,193. Books and supplies, $1,122.

Highlighting the drop in state support for public universities, the Minnesota Budget Project found that from 2000 to 2007, state funding per full-time higher education student dropped 28 percent.  During the same period, in-state tuition climbed 68 percent at the University of Minnesota and 55 percent in the Minnesota State Colleges and universities system. State grants did not keep pace with tuition increases.

Portantino said the situation is similar in California.  “it’s a double-whammy. We leave $400 million in unused financial aid on the table each year,” said Portantino. “We’re not augmenting the fee increases by helping students better access their financial aid opportunities.”

Around the country, tuition increases at public universities vary significantly by state – even by institution.  Regents of the University of Arizona will vote in March on a 31 percent increase that would boost tuition by $2,130 to $8,972.  For future students at Arizona State University, a 19 percent increase of $1,286 for total tuition of $8,126 is proposed.  Current students, however, would see hikes of 14 percent.  A 16 percent increase is proposed for incoming students at Northern Arizona University, raising tuition to $7,667. But the university pledges to hold tuition at that new higher level for at least eight semesters.

Pennsylvania and Ohio increased tuition by less than 5 percent in 2009.  In June 2009, the University of Arkansas Board of Trustees voted not to increase tuition at its flagship campus in Fayetteville. Other campuses in the system saw increases of between 2.6 percent and 5.2 percent, however.  “We’re always sensitive to the cost burden that higher education places upon students and their families. And that burden clearly is being exacerbated by the unprecedented economic struggles faced by so many across the nation,” said University of Arkansas Chancellor G. David Gearhart in a statement.

At another CSU – Connecticut State University – incoming commuter students will pay an additional $477 and on-campus students another $950. The primary reason: A reduction in state funding of $750,000 for the 2010 fiscal year and the prospect of a similar cut in fiscal year 2011.

Colorado State University students will pay an additional $434 for the 2010-2011 school year, the second 9 percent increase in as many years. Graduate students would experience a 15 percent increase of $917. With the increases, tuition for undergraduates is $6,318.  Other public universities are employing other cost-cutting strategies. In Virginia, the public universities are accepting a higher percentage of out-of-state applicants because those students pay more. The university argues that accepting more higher-paying out-of-state students keeps costs lower for in-state students.

In California, non-residents pay an additional $22,717 in tuition and fees at UC and $11,160 at CSU.   “We shouldn’t be doing that,” says Portantino. “We have a moral obligation to provide education opportunities for California students first.”   Portantino also takes exception to the decision of CSU to reduce enrollment by 40,000 students over the next two years – particularly at a time when applications for fall 2010 enrollment increased from 477,000 in 2008 to a record 609,000 in 2009.

CSU says the enrollment reduction is necessary to maintain educational quality and cope with budget cuts by the state.  But, Hurley says, despite the tuition hikes, most parents and students grudgingly accept them.  “If you go onto a college campus and ask students and parents, ‘Would you rather pay more to make sure you get a top quality education, maintain the reputation of the university and take classes when you need them so you can graduate on time?’ The students answer ‘Yes’ because what they really want is quality and to be able to graduate on time.”