Tuition hikes loom large over students

Kudos to the throng of University of Wisconsin-Madison students that walked out of classes Wednesday to protest the steep and unwarranted 9.6 percent tuition hike, which translates to $145 more each semester. At a time in which tough-talking hard-ass governors have grown increasingly popular by espousing the virtues of personal responsibility and paying your own way, but somehow forget who’s responsible for funding public institutions, the walkout was no trivial task.
College students across the country should pay attention to the happenings in Madison, long known as a progressive student-oriented town, because the same sideshow attraction featuring students, administrators and legislators will be coming to your town soon. On the surface, it appears to be a simple squabble over money, but if you delve a bit deeper into tuition-hike conflicts, a broader trend in higher education becomes clear.
Notice how the UW administration immediately rationalized the increase, saying it was necessary to maintain quality programs, retain and recruit quality professors and prepare for static or decreased legislative funding. This is a standard administrative argument that you will hear during each of the four to nine years of college you have ahead of you.
Certainly no one can argue with a university that wants to maintain quality programs and must retain and recruit good faculty members in order to do so. But why should students shoulder the burden? School officials argue the poor administration is getting pushed around by the legislature. This claim takes them off the hook even though they are passing the costs directly to the students.
Bill Richner, University of Wisconsin assistant vice chancellor, promptly noted that to “protect” needy students — the 5,000 students who qualify for Pell Grants and Wisconsin Higher Education Grants — the University disbursed new $300 scholarships for them to offset the $290 per year tuition hike. In fact, these scholarships give students an extra $10 to boot, so everyone should be ecstatic. I wonder if he thinks that our federal legislators, who recently raised the maximum Pell Grant award, believe in offsetting every financial aid increase with a comparable tuition hike.
This is a backward way of protecting low-income college students. Then again, maybe that’s not their goal.
When the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system conducted a study on higher education financing, their external consultant found that there are two types of students. First, there are students with parents who have been to college, recognize the long-term benefits of a college education and willingly fork over huge amounts to obtain the best possible education for their children. Second are the first-generation college students who receive little or no financial or moral support from their parents. For the latter, even small tuition increases can make the decision to drop out of school very easy.
Clearly, colleges and universities have been marketing themselves to the former. What else could explain the continued college presence by so many people in the face of decreased state funding and increased tuition for the past 15 to 20 years? The expansion of educational IRAs? The popularity of the unsubsidized student loan? The bipartisan support of the $1500 HOPE tax credits and deductions?
None of these programs help the low-income students — from families with incomes less than about $30,000 — who qualify for Pell Grants. These students do not consider loans as a real option. A 1995 GAO report on reducing college dropouts indicated that additional grants for low-income students reduced the dropout rate probability by 14 percent. However, a comparable increase in loan availability did not significantly affect the probability of a student dropping out.
Any Pell Grant award cancels the HOPE tax credit — they cannot be added together, unlike other forms of assistance. But who cares? From an accountant’s point of view, the money a college garners from Pell Grants is insignificant. In Minnesota, only about 20 percent of all public post-secondary students receive a Pell Grant or a state grant.
So tuition is practically an afterthought for everyone but the students who actually pay tuition out of their own pockets. And the incremental tuition hikes are always glossed over and minimized. Every year, legislators frame tuition increases in terms of dollars per semester and the amount of beer, stereos, movies, condoms or whatever seems most trivial at any given time.
Following the walkout in Madison, Kevin Keane, spokesman for Wisconsin Gov. Tommy Thompson, was true to form in a statement to The Badger Herald in which he subtly suggested that students are a bunch of spoiled brats. “I think they need to appreciate a little more how good they have it here. You’re getting a world-class education at a low cost.”
Sure, UW students have it good now, but nothing is forever. Minnesota had low tuition for years, but through incremental hikes, now have relatively high tuition. And the main reason for these increases weren’t mismanagement or fat-cat faculty salaries, but decreases in state funding since the early 1980s.
From 1981 to 1995, state university tuition rose by 229 percent, while the Consumer Price Index increased by only 79 percent. And although higher education has seen modest gains at the Legislature, the funds hardly make a dent because of the years of stagnant funding.
Nationwide, the economy has been on a roll. In Minnesota we have been doing so well that the state gave away millions but still couldn’t find enough to fund the University’s or MnSCU’s budget requests. The slap in the face the Legislature gave higher education last session was inexcusable.
We could lower tuition and truly increase college access for everybody if the state simply paid for two-thirds the cost of instruction as it did 20 years ago. It’s time we follow the lead of students in Madison and get mad about tuition.
Ed Day’s column appears on alternate Tuesdays. He welcomes comments at [email protected]