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In Unpredictable Times, Count on College Tuition to Keep Going Up

In Unpredictable Times, Count on College Tuition to Keep Going Up

The Tribune-Star via Yellowbrix

August 24, 2009

Everybody has their own welcome-to-the-real-world moment.

Staring at your first paycheck and wondering what all those deductions are. … Waking up at 2:30 in the morning with your 5-year-old at your beside, saying, “I think I’m gonna frow up.” … Hearing the mechanic say, “Looks like your tranny’s shot,” in rural Georgia on your first family vacation to Florida.

There’s a new one these days.

Tim Skinner’s seen it happen as a high school economics teacher. Near the end of a student’s junior year, he or she will walk down to the counselor’s office to talk about college. Often, that teenager is a good student — though not a valedictorian type — from a middle-income family. They’re not exactly sure how much college costs, but they figure they’ll receive grants and scholarships. Somehow, some way, they presume, college will be affordable.

Welcome to the real world.

Their grades, while solid, probably don’t qualify them for a scholarship. Their family’s income, while modest, may be too high for most grants, other than financial-aid loans. And that bottom-line tuition-and-fees dollar amount that just made their eyes pop out (or well up) will increase another couple hundred dollars by the time they’re actually ready to enroll in college.

“It’s not only a shock to the kids, but a shock to the parents,” said Skinner, also an Indiana state senator from Terre Haute and a dad who’s experienced all this firsthand.

The likely scenario: With a combination of loans by the student and the parents, they’ll rack up an average of $17,250 in debt by the time the kid gets a degree. (And some may wind up in debt, but without a degree. At Indiana’s public colleges, only 30 percent of them will make it to graduation day in four years, on average, and between 52 and 55 percent in six years.)

With fall semesters about to begin this month at Indiana State University and its fellow public institutions, the prices paid by the students and their families are going up again. Of course, that’s not news. Tuition goes up every year. That pricetag at Indiana colleges has doubled in less than a decade. (It now takes 30 percent of a family’s income to pay for their college student’s education.) But for that escalation to continue into this year — when unemployment is 10 percent, and Hoosiers are enduring layoffs, furloughs and cuts in wages and benefits — seems incredible.

“You cannot keep compounding at that level in a state that’s struggling,” Teresa Lubbers, the Indiana higher education commissioner, said on a visit Thursday to Terre Haute.

Lubbers, who moved into that role June 7, isn’t alone in that opinion. “An average middle-class family is getting overpowered by the tuition costs of going to college,” Luke Kenley, a state senator and chairman of the Senate Budget Committee, said by phone from Noblesville.

So what has the Legislature done about it? Indiana public colleges now set their tuition rates two years ahead (to give students and families some predictability). The schools must conduct public hearings on proposed increases. This year, for the first time, the Commission for Higher Education issued recommendations (non-binding, of course) on tuition levels for each institution.

The result? The colleges — whose boards of trustees actually set tuition for each individual institution — raised the rates anyway. Some increases were even higher than the commission recommendations.

Here’s how the schools responded to the higher ed suggestions: for Ball State, the commission recommended a 0- to 4-percent increase, and BSU hiked tuition 4.4 percent for this fall and 4.9 percent for 2010-11; ISU, up 3.9 and 3.9 (3.5 percent or less recommended); IU, up 4.6 and 4.8 percent (5 percent or less recommended); Ivy Tech, up 5.4 and 5.4 (4 percent or less recommended); Purdue, up 5 percent for this fall (with an additional phased-in $500-per-student fee) and 5 percent for 2010-11 (5 percent or less recommended); Southern Indiana, up 5 and 5 (5 percent or less recommended); Vincennes, up 3.8 and 4 (5 percent or less recommended).

A three-letter acronym, popular among text-messagers, would aptly describe families’ reactions. Instead, we’ll just say, “What the heck?”

The answer sounds like a line out of “Catch-22,” as Skinner put it.

The colleges legitimately explain that to stay competitive with others around the Midwest and nation, they must offer competitive pay to their faculty and staff (80 percent of their general-fund budgets). Also, despite the price, the demand for a college degree continues to go up. (It’s a seller’s market.) State support hasn’t kept pace, according to the commission. (While the Legislature has raised overall funding to Indiana colleges, the percentage committed to higher ed has decreased. Thus, the bulk of the burden has shifted to the students and their families.)

This summer’s contentious budget resolution drops ISU’s funding by $5.4 million over 2009-11, the university says. It also cites another $4.6 million in “unavoidable costs and strategic priorities,” including increases in health insurance, wages for students employed on campus, ISU-provided financial aid, and utilities. ISU also says it has implemented university-wide cuts in programs and services totaling nearly $4.4 million, including leaving 35 vacant jobs unfilled.

“It’s not all the colleges’ fault,” said Skinner. "If we lived up to our obligations …

“We’ve put them in a bad place,” he added.

On her Terre Haute stop, Lubbers said, “There are no easy answers.”

Perhaps some hard answers need to be considered. Maybe the Legislature’s Budget Committee should have the final say on tuition increases approved by the universities’ boards.

The lawmakers, who emphasize their pride in the state’s colleges, would rather the schools keep that decision-making responsibility and control their own costs. “They’re the ones running the university, so they’re the experts,” Kenley said. Skinner agreed. So did Lubbers, adding that she sensed little public support for such a power shift — “It is not, sort of, ‘the Hoosier way,’” she said.

Still, in almost every other public and private segment of the recession-stricken economy right now, no past practices are immune or sacred.

“There’s got to be some different thinking than what’s going on right now,” Skinner said, “and I think all of those ideas need to be on the table.”

Mark Bennett can be reached at (812) 231-4377 or mark.bennett@tribstar.com.


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Copyright © 2009, The Tribune-Star, Terre Haute, Ind.

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