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September 11, 2011

MAUREEN HAYDEN: State Budget Committee thumps public university chiefs

To get an inkling of why the State Budget Committee is so honked off at the public university chiefs over rising college costs, it helps to know how contentious some of their conversations have been.

At a committee hearing last week in which university officials tried to justify tuition rates that have doubled over a decade (and grown by 1,000 percent since 1974), several university presidents came off as clueless.

One said she thought the average graduate was getting a bargain for leaving her college with only $21,000 in student loan debt.

Another tried to stump lawmakers with charts and figures that made it look, at first glance, like his university had made real progress in cutting costs. It only took a second glance to figure out the charts were visually misleading and the real numbers were much less impressive.

The university heads took a thumping but should have known it was coming. They’d been warned not to raise rates over the amount recommended by the state’s Commission on Higher Education.

Most did it anyway, continuing on a bender of tuition hikes and mandatory fees that far outpace inflation and the growth in Hoosier incomes.

So why doesn’t the legislature just make them stop?

In the last session, when Statehouse Republicans decided to reform the ways of the K-12 schools, they pushed through major legislation that shifted much control to the state and away from local school officials.

They could do it because they controlled the money. Three years ago, when the legislature pushed through tax reforms, local property tax revenues — over which school boards had much control — were eliminated from education funding and replaced with revenue from the state’s sales tax.

That switch put nearly 100 percent of K-12 education funding in the hands of the state. With money comes control.

That’s not so when it comes to higher education. While the legislature doles out billions in state dollars to the public universities, those dollars make up only a fraction of the universities’ total operating revenues.

State dollars make up less than 19 percent of Indiana University’s total institutional operating revenues and less than 18 percent for Purdue University. For Indiana State University, it’s 37 percent; 34 percent for University of Southern Indiana; 32 percent for Ball State University; 29 percent for Vincennes University; and 27 percent for Ivy Tech Community College.

The rest of the revenues come from a variety of other public and private dollars — including the pockets of parents (me, included) feeling the painful pinch of rising college costs.

That doesn’t mean the legislature has no control; it just means it doesn’t have as much control as some would like.

Don’t expect the issue to go away. Rep. Jeff Espich, a Uniondale Republican and the influential chairman of the State Budget Committee, seems committed to getting the universities’ attention. At last week’s hearing, he said tuition hikes that were outpacing Hoosier incomes had created a “crisis.”

“I’ve never boiled lobsters, but I feel like my constituents are like lobsters in a boiling pot of hot water,” Espich said. “They’re squealing because of the fact they’re having a tough time sending their kids to college.”

Maureen Hayden is Statehouse bureau chief for CNHI Indiana newspapers. She can be reached at maureen.hayden@indianamediagroup.com.

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