Published December 5, 2014
Benjamin Franklin once said nothing is certain in life except for death and taxes. But had he been a college student in 2014, he might have been tempted to add tuition increases to that list.
But despite growing concerns over the costs of higher education, according to data from College Board’s 2014 “Trends in Higher Education” report, rising college tuition costs are actually far from a new phenomenon.
“The inflation-adjusted average published price for in-state students at public four-year universities is 42 percent higher than it was 10 years ago and more than twice as high as it was 20 years ago,” the report said.
The University of Connecticut, like so many other public four-year universities, has been steadily increasing its tuition for years. In the last decade alone, UConn’s out-of-state total cost – tuition, fees, room and board – has nearly doubled, from $24,484 in 2003 to $44,698 in 2014. In-state total cost has increased as well, going from $13,700 in 2003 to $24,518 in 2014.
For prospective college students and their families, the financial landscape of higher education can be a confusing place. For example, a 2013 report from the Connecticut legislature found that UConn has become “less affordable” for poorer students. But on the flip side, Kiplinger ranked UConn No. 25 on its “Best Values in Public Colleges” list.
So which is it, less affordable or a great value?
It’s easy to look at tuition costs on a spreadsheet or read about them online, shrug them off as the new normal and remain in the dark. But in order to see the light and understand this problem, you have to break it down.
WHY IS UCONN’S TUITION INCREASING?
The consensus among university administrators is that tuition is increasing due to declining support from the State of Connecticut.
“Right now, we do our best to make it affordable. But it’s very hard, and for us the reason it’s hard is because of the cuts in the state appropriations,” UConn President Susan Herbst said. “We’re down tens of millions of dollars from where we were a few years ago. Because of the recession, the state hasn’t been able to put the money in.”
When the state gives UConn less money, other areas of the university’s budget must increase to compensate for the loss. Generally, the budget is comprised of three main parts: state appropriations, philanthropy – private donations and fundraising – and tuition. When one of those three components decreases in size, the other two must grow to fill the space. Increasing tuition, therefore, is one solution to the problem, albeit an unfortunate one.
UConn’s tuition has also been increasing because, traditionally, it has lagged far behind other universities in the area of private donations. But Michael Daniels, student representative on the UConn Board of Trustees, said the university is working to catch up to its competition.
Joshua Newton was named president of the UConn Foundation – the university’s private fundraising wing – in 2013, after being successfully hired away from Emory University. He led the largest fundraising campaign in Emory history, raising over $1 billion in seven years.
“Since they hired Josh Newton, they really have been a lot more aggressive, they’ve been a lot more successful in starting to get bigger donations,” Daniels said. “That’s not to say that they’re anywhere near what they should be, but they’re certainly getting better.”
Regardless of fundraising gains, the loss of state funding still hits hard. That loss has also been exacerbated by UConn’s increasing overhead.
“Deferred maintenance goes up, food goes up, heat goes up, electricity goes up – that’s room and board costs – contracts increase,” said Sally Reis, UConn’s vice provost for academic affairs. “We’re working with unions that have contractual agreements that their salaries go up. Medical benefits go up. Everything increases.”
Simply put, UConn is receiving a smaller portion of its budget from the state at a time when its yearly costs are growing. In order for the university to sustain itself, it has to find the money somewhere.
“No one wants to raise tuition, it’s just a way we have to cope with increasing costs,” Reis said.
Fred Carstensen, a UConn economics professor, said the decline in state funding to public universities is a national problem, not just a Connecticut one.
“You can look at other schools and universities that are nominally public, but many of the big public research universities are getting 15, 10 percent of their funding from their state governments,” Carstensen said. “You have to make up for that, and one of the ways you make up for it is tuition.”
WHAT DO STUDENTS GET IN RETURN?
Return on investment has long been a term associated with the stock market. But as college costs continue to skyrocket, students and their families are paying more and more attention to what colleges can offer in return for their thousands of dollars. Success on the job market and low student debt are two such measuring sticks.
“People see college unlike a lot of other things they spend money on. It’s an investment,” Herbst said. “It’s going to have a return. That’s why you see people stretch for college. You do want to know that, you go to a place like UConn and it opens opportunity for you. It opens up the world for you.”
One way universities like UConn work to increase their return on investment is through competition, and UConn’s drive to not only compete with other colleges and universities, but surpass them, has been well documented.
“We certainly look closely at who our competitors are,” Reis said.
But competition comes at a price. New facilities, hiring new faculty and offering new courses and majors are all expensive steps. Increasing tuition is one way to ensure those steps can be paid for.
“It costs money to keep getting better,” Herbst said.
UConn has undertaken some ambitious initiatives in recent years to improve its national standing. A faculty hiring plan, which aims to bring around 300 new faculty to the Storrs campus by 2015, began in 2011. The university also wants to bring its student-faculty ratio down as low as 15-to‑1. That ratio stood at 18-to‑1 just three years ago.
“We’ve hired over 275 new faculty, not just in STEM but in other areas,” Reis said. “We are constantly trying to improve, and with the state’s share of UConn’s overall budget, we can’t do that unless we’re able to raise funds.”
And while university administrators have said U.S. News and World Report’s annual ranking of public universities plays a very small role in their efforts, the ranking remains an important barometer for prospective students and their families.
UConn is currently ranked No. 19 nationally among public universities. But in order to keep moving up, the university needs to spend money.
“We’ve increased our U.S. News and World Report ranking, even though we don’t do what we do to get better scores on U.S. News and World Report,” Reis said. “We do what we do to give our students a better education.”
Daniels said UConn’s return on investment is growing alongside what students have to pay.
“The value is rising for all of us, whether you got your degree this year, years from now or four years ago,” Daniels said. “The stature of the university keeps rising. We went from 20 years ago being more or less a safety school to being a really respected national university, and it’s only getting better.”
In order to offset the burden of tuition increases, UConn is also ramping up its ability to give financial aid. In a June 2014 press release, university spokeswoman Stephanie Reitz said about 86 percent of UConn undergraduates receive some form of aid, and that many students “pay significantly less” than the “sticker price” – total cost without any financial aid or scholarships.
Carstensen said private university tuition is a good example of the “sticker price” not being representative of what students actually pay.
“You increase the ‘sticker price,’ but at the same time you significantly increase the amount of financial aid, so there’s more and more differential pricing based on your ability to pay,” he said. “The University of Chicago is now $63,000 a year, but probably 80 percent of the students get some sort of financial aid.”
So, to answer the question, increasing tuition can be worth it for students, especially when there are ample financial aid opportunities.
WHEN WILL IT END?
Perhaps the most troubling thing about tuition increases is that nobody knows exactly when they will end.
UConn’s Board of Trustees approved a four-year tuition increase plan in December 2011, which will run through 2016. After that plan expires, another could be put in place after the university evaluates the state’s budgetary commitment, Herbst said.
Basically, UConn takes its cues from the state legislature. If the state is in financial trouble, which currently it is, the percentage of UConn’s budget comprised of state aid will decrease, which means tuition will go up. If the state is doing well financially, UConn may receive more money. But overall, the forecast is murky at best.
“The trustees usually talk about tuition in January-February, and then by March or April they have to say what the tuition rates will be,” Herbst said. “I hope – I can’t promise this – but I hope it will be a multi-year plan as it was four years ago. That way, parents or prospective students can plan, and they know what the cost is going to be.”
Daniels said he recognizes tuition increases are the last thing students want to worry about, and he encouraged students to be vocal about and cognizant of how UConn organizes its budget.
“Don’t think that we don’t understand that it’s not a good situation,” Daniels said. “It shouldn’t be this way, and I think it’s important that, if students have the ability, they should pay attention to it or at least talk to student government to kind of say, ‘Hey, keep an eye on the way the university spends money,’ and make sure that they’re always vigilant in how to do that.’”
UConn’s tuition situation is far from ideal. But in reality, other students at other universities are in much more dire straits.
The University of California-Los Angeles is just one example. For the 2014–15 academic year, the school’s undergraduate student budget for in-state students is $33, 526, almost $10,000 more than UConn’s in-state total cost.
“Just keep in mind that it’s not better anywhere else, but that doesn’t mean that it’s good,” Daniels said.