Hikes in Tuition Make Public Universities Less of a Bargain

Public universities have long been considered a bargain in higher education, but increasingly that is no longer the case. With a stagnant economy forcing state governments to cut funding for higher education, more schools are forced to make up the difference via tuition hikes — which means that those who considered a public university to be a great deal will now need to examine things a bit more closely.

Consider a Colorado math teacher’s story: he and his decidedly middle-class parents were able to completely cover his tuition which at the time – the mid to late 1980′s – at roughly $8,600 per year.

Now that his daughter is looking to follow in his footsteps, the tuition bill has more than doubled. To attend CU, his daughter will have to pay more than $23,000 a year – a sum that is beyond what Joiner and his wife can afford.

The big difference between now and then: Though Colorado taxpayers now provide more funding in absolute terms, those funds cover a much smaller share of CU’s total spending, which has grown enormously. In 1985, when Mr. Joiner was a freshman, state appropriations paid 37% of the Boulder campus’s $115 million “general fund” budget. In the current academic year, the state is picking up 9% of a budget that has grown to $600 million.

A lot of that growth comes from a hike in administrative costs, with a large portion being allocated to pay increases for those holding non-faculty jobs. Meanwhile, like at many other schools, CU’s tenured faculty have reduced their teaching commitment, forcing the school to spend money for more adjuncts and graduate assistants to take over lectures – especially the introductory classes.

And of course, there is always the issue of state funding. In the 1970s, Colorado was ranked 6th among all states for the amount of money per student that it spent on higher ed. By the time Joiner’s daughter was considering her options, the state was 48th on that list. That probably contributes more to CU’s higher price tag, since even with growth in administrative spending, it still spends less than half on administrative costs than do many other big research universities.

CU has gotten creative about making up the budget shortfalls. Two years ago a vigorous lobbying campaign paid dividends when Colorado lawmakers decided to exclude foreign students from the cap on the number of out of staters that the schools were allowed to accept.

Akaysha Joiner, the Aurora girl whose father attended CU in the 1980s, graduated at the top of her high-school class. When she applied, her father was making about $71,000 a year and her mother was temporarily out of work. CU offered her two grants totaling $7,400 and a $5,000 loan, which would cover slightly more than half the annual cost. Mr. Joiner says that he hadn’t set aside money for Akaysha’s education and was surprised she hadn’t been offered more aid because of her top class ranking, the fact that he and his wife are alumni and that she is the child of a black parent and a Hispanic parent. “I don’t know that I expected a full ride,” he says. “But I had no idea [our payment] was going to be that high.”