College students: Prepare for another tuition hike

Utah Regents expected to approve average increases of 8.7 percent.
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Utah college students should brace themselves for yet another year of tuition hikes, this time averaging 8.7 percent across the state's nine public colleges and universities.

The State Board of Regents meet at Snow College in Ephraim today, when they are expected to approve increases ranging from 6 to 12.5 percent. Over the years, school administrators have increasingly turned to students to pay the bills as the share of budgets covered by state appropriations shrink.

The University of Utah is proposing a 9.5 percent hike, pushing next year's tuition and fees north of $6,000. That's more than double the cost of a decade ago, exceeding the rate of inflation by at least 60 percent.

"The challenge is to balance between the needs to fund the institution and keep it strong while recognizing our students have a limited ability to pay, particularly in these difficult times. We are committed to keeping the increases in single digits for those reasons," said David Pershing, the U.'s senior vice president for academic affairs. "As a major research institution we start off poorly funded. Any cut in state appropriation is more difficult for us than our peers [state flagship universities] who start off with a bigger base."

Still, U. tuition compared to comparable schools nationwide has declined over the past two decades, slipping from 100 percent to 80 percent of the peer average.

Soaring tuition is a national phenomenon that could lead to a crisis in college affordability. According to education policy experts, states have devoted a growing share of their revenues to health care and, in some cases, prisons. That leaves less for education, which still accounts for the lion's share of Utah's budget. Tuition now covers 40 to 45 percent of Utah schools' operations.

Colleges' expenses, meanwhile, are escalating, said Sandy Baum, an economist at Skidmore College. High-tech equipment is invading classrooms across the nation, but that investment is not lowering costs the way it does in other sectors.

"States are spending more but more students are enrolling in greater numbers. As more enroll the services are expanding. The things they do are more expensive," said Baum, who writes the College Board's annual "Trends in College Pricing" report.

"A big expense is compensation. Health care is a dragging force. As more students go to college they need more remedial learning. They need academic support services."

She called U. tuition a "fabulous" bargain considering the increased earning power of students who earn baccalaureate degrees.

"They are getting an awful lot for their $6,000," she said. "Going to college is not a purchase, it's an investment and with the rising price it's still a good investment."

Baum stressed that college is a financial burden for many, but no one should let cost get in the way of obtaining a degree that will pay huge dividends down the road. "People don't buy houses or start businesses based on current income. That's certainly true of college," she said.

Utah's hikes aren't the steepest in recent decades, but they will no doubt sting, particularly in light of how little need-based aid Utah makes available. Salt Lake Community College is seeking a 6 percent increase, driving its annual tuition to nearly $3,000 -- about a third higher than the national average.

The high price is threatening SLCC's missions of open access and affordability, said student body president Liu Vakapuna. "A lot of students don't know what's going on and then they get hit with it. The international students will take a huge hit."

Student fees -- for bus passes, computer centers, campus media and fitness complexes -- are going up an average of 3 percent. While some schools didn't change fees by more than a few dollars, U. students will see a $57 bump, most of which will go to athletic programs.

Part of the institutions' tuition hikes stems from a 1.5 percent increase the Regents have proposed for "first-tier" tuition, the portion of the hike addressing higher compensation and benefits. The remainder is proposed by each schools' board of trustees.

Southern Utah University is proposing the largest hike at 12.5 percent. Next year the Cedar City school will charge more than the $4,290 students will pay at Brigham Young University, the state's most selective institution, which enjoys a hefty subsidy from its owner, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Re-branding itself as a small liberal-arts college serving the whole state, SUU is pursuing an instruction model that relies on tenure-track, doctoral-level faculty teaching small classes. That kind of education is more expensive and SUU tuition should be more in-line with what similar institutions charge, according to SUU President Michael Benson.