News From Terre Haute, Indiana

Indiana Legislature

September 9, 2011

State universities taken to task for tuition hikes

INDIANAPOLIS — Indiana budget leaders who spent hours grilling state university officials about escalating tuition costs are hoping the pressure will produce a rollback in tuition hikes.

During a break in a daylong hearing on rising tuition costs, State Budget Committee Chairman Jeff Espich said the universities should cancel plans to increase tuition and fees for the 2012-2013 school year and spend the dollars they do have more efficiently.

He stopped short of endorsing the use of a fiscal weapon his committee could wield at its next meeting — vetoing the universities’ building projects — and said he hopes university officials would act voluntarily instead.

“Our real goal is to get them to look seriously and honestly about stopping next year’s tuition hikes,” Espich said.

That move, he said, would begin to reverse what he called an alarming trend: In-state undergraduate tuition rates at Indiana’s public universities have increased 122 percent since 2000, far outpacing both  inflation and per capita income in Indiana. “You’re pricing the middle class out of a college education,” Espich said.

State Sen. Luke Kenley, a budget committee member and the powerful chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, said the university spending has been “out of control.”

Espich summoned the leaders of the state’s public universities to the Statehouse for Thursday’s hearing to explain why they’d raised tuition and mandatory fees for this school year and next after they’d been warned by legislators of the perils of doing so.

Almost all imposed higher tuition and fee hikes than those recommended by the state Commission on Higher Education in May.

Several of the university presidents argued that their institutions have felt forced to raise tuition and fees to compensate for the cut in state tax dollars appropriated by the legislature. Ball State University President Jo Ann Gora — who last month was given a 10 percent pay increase by BSU’s board of trustees — said tuition and fee increases were needed to maintain  the “value” of a Ball State education.

Gora also seemed to question that rising tuition costs were burdensome; she said the average Ball State student was graduating with about $21,000 in student debt, which she described as not much considering what they got in return.  

Indiana University President Michael McRobbie and others also argued that the “sticker price” of tuition was misleading since a high number of students receive financial aid to offset those costs. McRobbie said that while tuition and fees at IU’s flagship campus in Bloomington was $9,343, the “average net cost” was much lower for students who receive financial aid because they’re high-achieving or have low family incomes.

That explanation didn’t set well with Kenley, who called McRobbie’s figure “irrelevant” for middle-class families hit with the full cost of college.

The “sticker price” explanation also didn’t go over well with State Budget Director Adam Horst, who said the state is also incurring more costs as tuition rises, since state-funded scholarship programs are paying out more money as tuition goes up. Horst said those dollars have risen from about $69 million in 2001 to more than $190 million in 2013. “That leaves less dollars to do other things,” Horst said.

The State Budget Committee meets again on Sept. 15; on its agenda are a list of university building projects that the committee must approve. Espich said he didn’t think the budget committee was ready to veto those projects just yet.

But it remains a possibility in months to come: Two years ago, when Kenley was the budget committee chairman, he held up millions of dollars earmarked for some of the universities’ capital projects until they agreed to lower their tuition hikes.

Rep. Bill Crawford, an Indianapolis Democrat who’s argued in the past for more money for higher education, said during Thursday’s hearing that he thought the state’s universities have been spending more than they should. “They should not be looking at a filet mignon budget,” Crawford said, “if all they can afford is a hamburger.”

Maureen Hayden is the Tribune-Star Statehouse bureau chief. She can be reached at maureen.hayden@indianamediagroup.com.

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