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.

Connecticut Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, right, addresses the House and the Senate at the end of session at the Capitol on the final day of session, Thursday, May 8, 2014, in Hartford, Conn. (AP Photo/Jessica Hill)

Con­necti­cut Gov. Dan­nel P. Mal­loy, right, address­es the House and the Sen­ate at the end of ses­sion at the Capi­tol on the final day of ses­sion, Thurs­day, May 8, 2014, in Hart­ford, Conn. (AP Photo/Jessica Hill)

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.”

Financial Aid Forms

Finan­cial aid infor­ma­tion from the UConn Bursar’s Office. With tuition ris­ing, many stu­dents are turn­ing to finan­cial aid to off­set the increas­ing costs. (Pho­to by Jack Mitchell)

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.”

malloy-herbst

UConn Pres­i­dent Susan Herb­st meets with Con­necti­cut Gov. Dan­nel P. Mal­loy in Hart­ford on Feb. 2, 2011. (Pho­to by Dan­nel Malloy/Flickr)

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.

NEXT — UConn and the State of Con­necti­cut: A Com­pli­cat­ed Rela­tion­ship