Phillip Tutor: Control tuition costs? Yeah, right
Sep 07, 2012 | 2087 views |  0 comments | 5 5 recommendations | email to a friend | print
If you’re an undergrad this fall at the University of Alabama, your tuition for two 15-hour semesters is $9,200.

That’s 7 percent more than it was a year ago.

And $1,300 more than it was two years ago.

And $2,200 more than it was three years ago.

And $2,800 more than it was four years ago. See the trend?

And, in one final comparison, that’s $3,900 more than it was five years ago.

While you’re mulling that misery, meet Guy Bailey. He’s the new president at UA. He’s an Alabama alum and the former president of Texas Tech University. He replaced Robert Witt, who became chancellor of the University of Alabama system, and this week he began his new job. The 61-year-old Bailey’s first day in his Tuscaloosa office was Tuesday.

That’s when he said this: “We will do everything in our power to keep our costs under control.”

How?

Witt couldn’t, and he was generally seen as a splendid administrator who took the university to unforeseen heights in research, expansion, academics and enrollment. (And that says nothing about the rejuvenation of the university’s football team under Nick Saban.) Even Bailey, at his introductory press conference this week, called this the “golden age” of the University of Alabama.

Witt and the university’s Board of Trustees spent the last five years spewing the same heartless logic used by trustee boards and presidents of countless other universities. Their hands are tied, they say. They are at the mercy of federal and state appropriations, they say. Students have an expanding list of financial options, such as grants and scholarships, they say. Expenses are going up in every part of a college campus, they say.

Factually, they are right.

Consider UA’s plight. In 2008, the university received $616 million in federal and state money. This year, its check will be $173 million lighter than it was four years ago. Between the Great Recession and the miserly leadership exhibited by legislators in Montgomery, higher education has seen its appropriations slashed year after year. Legislators won’t consider any methods to raise new revenue and know only one way to respond to tough economic times.

CUT! CUT! CUT!

Public universities like Alabama, Auburn and Jacksonville State become middle managers of the state’s bad news. Legislators who do the cutting aren’t the ones who tell college students and their parents that they’re going to have to ante up come tuition time. Legislators leave that decision to trustee boards and presidents, who then pass on the bad news from Montgomery in the form of higher tuition bills.

Remember, they say their hands are tied.

Yet, that’s not the point.

Students and their parents are getting hammered. Middle-class families with middle-class checkbooks don’t care if it is legislators’ cowardice or trustees’ knee-jerk reactions that cause tuition to precipitously rise. All they know is more and more Alabama families are finding it increasingly difficult to send their children to a state school — even though enrollment at most state universities continues to rise because people still see a college degree for what it is in today’s marketplace: invaluable.

Earlier this summer, the Wall Street Journal reported that tuition and fees at four-year public schools have risen 150 percent since 1990, according to the College Board, a national university advisory group. Here’s the real kicker: administrators constantly point to the government’s expansion of loan, grant and assistance programs as proof that students are not being priced out of higher education.

Well, loans usually have to be repaid. And the Journal found that new graduates’ average debt load from their tuition bills rose 24 percent from 2000 through 2010. The Progressive Policy Institute says new graduates in 2010 on average had a debt load of $16,932.

In fairness to UA, this isn’t a Tuscaloosa-only problem; tuition increases blossom on virtually all Alabama campuses. It’s a national issue, like poverty, that affects some states worse than others. But Alabama’s situation is particularly nasty: The state is cash-poor and a sizeable percentage of Alabamians do not have a college education and barely earn a living wage — if they do at all. Meanwhile, the state desperately needs a skilled, educated populace to compete for jobs and better our lives. Education opens minds as well as doors.

This should be the question for Bailey and Alabama’s other university presidents: What happens when only the well-to-do can afford the tuition and student-loan debt?

If this trend continues, we’ll soon know the answer.

Phillip Tutor — ptutor@annistonstar.com — is The Star’s commentary editor. Follow him at Twitter.com/PTutor_Star.
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