In a basic sense, legislators Wednesday did what they had to do — keep Alabama's 44,000 PACT families from having their college investments go for naught. Great.
But those same legislators also figuratively slapped the faces of Jacksonville State University, the other regional schools and the two-year colleges. By installing an unequal method of capping tuition increases for PACT students, the Legislature told JSU and its brethren that they, and their students, aren't as important as those who teach and study in Tuscaloosa and Auburn.
JSU President Bill Meehan called the compromise "unfair."
He should have used stronger, angrier words.
Granted, legislators in the Senate and House had to reconcile two competing proposals that were similar except for one main variation: The Senate version did not cap tuition increases for PACT students; the House version capped tuition increases at 2.5 percent per year.
Critics, proponents, PACT families, higher-education lobbyists and the all-powerful Alabama Education Association lined up like soldiers at the front over that issue.
To save PACT, legislators had to select one of those two bills or a compromise version.
The best option would have been selecting the House version, which shared the pain somewhat equally among the state, the universities and PACT participants. The program's financial woes are too profound to ask a single player to bear a wholly unequal share of the burden.
But this Legislature did not select the best option.
Instead, legislators succumbed to the influence of the state's two largest universities and took care of their pressing concern — thwarting a bill that would limit tuition increases. In doing so, they declared JSU, Troy, West Alabama and North Alabama and the like as low-level academic institutions whose interests, and those of their students, don't need protecting as much as those in Auburn and Tuscaloosa.
Shame on these legislators.
University presidents such as Meehan are quick to point out that state appropriations for higher education have been slashed during the depths of the Great Recession. Every public university in Alabama is feeling the pain from the double-whammy of rising costs and less money from Montgomery. In that sense, Tuscaloosa is no different than Jacksonville.
Oh, and PACT students? Where are they in this mess?
They're caught in the middle. Their contracts will be honored, but they're likely to face large tuition increases at AU and UA that may put additional strain on their families. What's more, that's a strain that will be limited for PACT families at regional universities because of the caps.
Which means it's highly probable that this compromise may force PACT families to use those caps — AU and UA on one side, the regional schools on the other — as an unintended variable in their selection of colleges.
That's an unwarranted side effect that could have been avoided.
This solution is better than no solution at all. But the state's regional universities have been treated poorly. Their anger is justified.