U weighs alternatives to keep tuition low

by Coralie Carlson

A congressionally commissioned panel slapped universities with the brunt of the blame for runaway tuition costs, a study released Wednesday concluded.
The writers of the National Commission on the Cost of Higher Education report warned schools to get tuition under control or face government intervention. If this year is any barometer, University officials are already taking action to fix the problem locally.
As students across the nation contend with an average 5 percent rise in tuition costs, the University this summer relaxed tuition hikes to match the inflation rate.
University officials capped increases at an average 2.5 percent, partly because of a generous appropriation from the Legislature. Lawmakers put forward more than $1 billion in state money for the University’s operating costs over the next two years.
Bob Kvavik, an associate vice president in the provost’s office, said tuition costs reflect a balance between access, choice and quality in an institution.
“We’re not in an environment where prices go up mindlessly,” Kvavik said.
There is no guarantee that increases will remain low, said Peter Zetterberg, director of the Office of Planning and Analysis. If state contributions fall in the future, tuition could rise faster.
Despite its efforts to hold costs in check, many students blame the University’s high administrative and overhead expenses for tuition hikes regardless of the rate.
“Raising tuition without dealing with these problems is just like stealing money from students,” said Imad Khalek, a graduate student in mechanical engineering. “The only time you start thinking about the solutions is when you are in bad shape.”
University President Mark Yudof last fall announced plans to scale back administration. The cutback could save the school $6.3 million by June 1999.
The commission’s report reflects a need to moderate the trends of the past 10 to 15 years, said Phil Lewenstein, director of communications for the Minnesota Higher Education Services Office. For example, the University would have to hold tuition increases at a low rate for several years to balance out big hikes in past.
In the College of Liberal Arts student tuition and fees rose 116 percent from 1988 to 1997; statewide per capita income rose only 52 percent, a University study shows.
The panel’s report, “Straight Talk About College Costs and Prices,” could be instrumental later this year when federal lawmakers re-authorize the Higher Education Act. The legislation controls most federal financial aid.
The report, while administering a stern rebuke to colleges, offers ways the schools can correct the problems on their own. For instance, it says universities should control factors which drive up tuition costs such as construction fees, faculty salaries and technology outlays.
At the University, however, officials are raising faculty salaries, now among the lowest in the country for comparable institutions. In addition, they are investing money in construction and technology.
The report also recommended “self-reviews” to recognize efficient measures and the disclosure of financial aid information to students and parents. The University applies both measures.