The Sunday AJC contains several great education stories, some of which will not appear online as the stories are subscriber only. One of the Sunday stories that is online delves into the rising costs of public colleges and the concomitant rising student debt.
This is the line that I suspect will provoke the most debate: A decade ago, the state paid 75 percent of the cost of educating a student. Today it covers 54 percent, with students and their parents picking up most of the rest.
The retort that I expect is that students and parents should be responsible for all the costs, and that it shouldn’t fall to the state to pay the bills for students.
But state governments have long taken the position that underwriting college educations is a potent investment and a proven route to a stronger economy. A better educated workforce attracts jobs and leads to a higher tax base, lower health costs, less crime and more civility.
Although most of them don’t know what it’s for, Georgia’s college students are paying a “special institutional fee” that can exceed $1,000 a year. The fee was supposed to end this summer, but University System Chancellor Hank Huckaby told the AJC last week that it will continue next year and probably beyond. The reason: It brings in $210 million a year.
The story of the special institutional fee is the continuing story of the University System of Georgia: The economy may be in a downturn, but the state’s colleges are on an upswing, and students are paying for much of it. Spending has gone from $5.4 billion in 2007 to a projected $7 billion this year, and is expected to continue to climb next year. Tuition and fees at many schools have doubled since the fall of 2005, hitting close to $10,000 a year at the University of Georgia and Georgia Tech.
Since taking office in July, Huckaby has been seeking ways to control spending amid cuts to the HOPE scholarship, an outcry from students that they can no longer afford a college education, and open frustration voiced by lawmakers. Those same lawmakers, who have griped for years about excessive college spending, are nonetheless set to increase University System funding by $120 million and double what the state borrows for campus construction.
For their part, college presidents said they have increased class sizes, reduced the number of course sections offered, eliminated open positions and held off on maintenance and new technology to absorb cuts in state spending. They note that they’ve made these cuts while teaching record numbers of students.
A decade ago, the state paid 75 percent of the cost of educating a student. Today it covers 54 percent, with students and their parents picking up most of the rest. Even Huckaby concedes that the task of controlling costs in the sometimes unruly University System — 35 schools, 318,000 students and 42,000 employees — is enormous. “I think costs will go up,” he said. “I think what we are trying to do our very best is moderate the rate of increase.”
Even as legislators have publicly criticized spending by the University System, the system has publicly complained about deep cuts by the Legislature. While overall university spending has gone up, state support has dropped from $2.1 billion in 2008 to $1.7 billion this year. It will increase to more than $1.8 billion under the budget being considered by lawmakers. Many states continue to slash college funding. In Florida, for instance, the Legislature has agreed to cut the state’s support for higher ed by $300 million.
But not in Georgia. Here, lawmakers are debating whether to add $120 million to next year’s higher ed budget, largely to pay for growth in enrollment. That increase, if enacted, still won’t necessarily keep the system from raising tuition and some fees.
The “special institutional fee,” which was approved during the recession to help make up for budget cuts, was supposed to end this year. Huckaby said it won’t, although the Board of Regents eventually would like to do away with it. The fee has skyrocketed. Georgia Tech students paid $100 a semester in January 2009. Now they pay $544 a semester. The problem, Huckaby said, is that the system can’t give up the millions the fee brings in.
“We can’t afford to take a $210 million hit right now,” he said. “The ultimate goal would be to eliminate that or come close to eliminating that.”
–From Maureen Downey, for the AJC Get Schooled blog