Keep tuition within reach

Published 12:16 am Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Trustees at Alabama colleges are keeping the ‘higher’ in higher education, although not necessarily in a positive way.

A story Sunday by Times staff writer Paul Gattis revealed what many students and parents of Alabama college students have been feeling in their pocketbooks.

Tuition at public colleges in Alabama has risen almost annually in the past dozen years – often at double-digit increments.

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Steep increases this year include a 15 percent boost at the University of Alabama in Huntsville ($491 more for a total of $3,746 per semester), 12.8 percent at UA’s main campus ($450 more for a total of $3,950 per semester) and 13 percent at Auburn University ($464 more for a total of $3,950 per semester).

The constant adjustments may price many would-be students out of college.

Alabama A&M University approved a 23 percent tuition increase for this fall, adding $694 to what will now be a $3,488 bill per semester.

A report from the Alabama Commission on Higher Education shows most state colleges boosting tuition every year since 1998-99. Alabama A&M went several years during that period without an increase.

An undergraduate at UAH or A&M in 2002-03 paid as much per year in tuition as he or she will per semester this fall, the ACHE study showed.

No one likes cost increases whether for gas, groceries, rent, insurance – you name it.

But in a day when a college education can open more employment doors, pricey tuition could keep many aspiring students away and deprive them from reaching their full potential. Before pouncing on college trustee boards as greedy and unsympathetic, consider what they’ve been up against. State funding has dropped significantly during the recession.

The UA System, Auburn and A&M noted $200 million in combined state cuts since 2008. Grant sources are also drying up, all at a time when expenses continue to climb. There are salaries and light bills to pay, health insurance premiums to cover, maintenance bills to pay.

Political forces may also be a factor. Colleges don’t have the clout the powerful Alabama Education Association has in lobbying for greater shares of the shrinking state education budget. Paul Hubbert, executive secretary of AEA, has often argued that K-12 schools deserve more state money because they don’t have as many ways to raise money as universities do through things like endowments, alumni gifts, grants and, yes, tuition.

But this “tax” is a heavy burden on familes and students, who often must go into great debt – even with scholarships or choosing to stay at home – to afford college.

And by having to rely more on outside money like endowments or big alumni gifts targeted for specific programs, colleges could lack the flexibility to put money where it’s needed.

It’s a conundrum that isn’t likely to go away soon.

Universities must find a way to run their campuses through solid management and resist the urge each time to simply jack up tuition to balance the books.

State policymakers must consider the return-on-investment when evaluating how to allocate those education dollars.

Quality public schools are invaluable to a community and the greater good of society.

Alabama’s universities, their researchers and programs have brought the state national and international recognition and are often a catalyst for expanding industries.

Alabama needs a quality K through PH.D. system.

The question remains how to achieve and sustain that in these tricky economic times.

—The Huntsville Times