Tutor column

A crucial constituency — students themselves — listens Wednesday to what JSU administrators, including its acting president, have to say about costs and fees related to a potential dining hall project.

My guess is that the brass at Jacksonville State University heard what Keeley Tibbitts said last week.

But agree? I’m not so sure.

“We’re just trying to lower the fees, because it seems like they are raising tuition every year, and they’re adding more and more fees, because they want to make money, that’s what it’s about,” Tibbitts, a communications major at JSU, told The Star. “Most of the students came here because it was cheap, and now it’s becoming not cheap.”

Yeah, I know. Let’s check the facts. JSU’s board of trustees in May froze tuition rates for this academic year. And the “they want to make money” and “it’s becoming not cheap” premises are fraught with so much nuance and backstory that they can’t be debunked with a Wikipedia-styled answer.

But this much is clear: There are JSU students who are concerned about the cost of attending classes on the Friendliest Campus in the South. Tibbitts is one of them. And it’s no surprise that administrators spent so much time at Wednesday’s student town hall fielding questions about a proposed new on-campus dining hall and accompanying “mandatory commuter meal plan.”

This undercurrent of discontent is visceral — not only at JSU, but at most public universities where students and their families are drowning in bloated tuition bills and fee structures.

With that, let’s go back to 2007-08.

George W. Bush was leaving the White House, Barack Obama was moving in, and the Great Recession was rocking the planet. Businesses closed. Stocks plummeted. Hiring stopped. Retirement accounts tanked. State budgets contracted. Banks and automakers craved bailouts. And the fallout didn’t merely trickle to those below. It landed — Thud! — and bloodied whatever was underneath.

Alabama’s Legislature, facing drastic revenue shortfalls, slashed funding of virtually everything, higher education included. And in April 2008, JSU’s trustees did the deed.

They passed this pain along to those who couldn’t pass it along to someone else.

They approved a 12.4 percent tuition increase for undergraduate students. They approved an 11 percent tuition increase for graduate students. They approved a 15 percent increase in residential housing costs. They even approved a $10 fee increase just to apply to JSU.

They had no choice, really. That’s how this trickle-down charade works. The economy had cratered and the Legislature was mulling drastic cuts to higher education. Then-Gov. Bob Riley’s initial proposed budget called for a 13.4 percent statewide reduction for colleges and universities — a $6.6 million cut for JSU alone.

The Great Recession ended, but this trickle-down charade didn’t. Researchers at the Alabama Commission on Higher Education say the median increase for in-state undergraduate students at four-year public schools in Alabama has been 71 percent over the last 10 years. JSU’s increase largely mirrors that statewide figure.

That’s mind-blowing and egregious — not only for JSU, but for all of the state’s four-year schools. Who builds a business model whose finances are predicated on outrageous price increases and expectations that customers will still pay?

Higher ed, that’s who.

Lawmakers in Montgomery pranced with pride earlier this year when they passed a record $7.1 billion education budget that included at least a 5 percent increase for the four-year public universities. Golly gee, thanks. But the fine print matters. While the Legislature has pumped money into the state’s K-12 and pre-K programs, funding for higher education in Alabama remains below pre-recession levels.

That’s one end of the candle. The other is the arm’s race on our state’s campuses. It goes like this: students pay fees and tuition. Campuses need students (and their money). Students are swayed by academic programs and shiny amenities — new dorms, new dining halls, new recreation centers, new everything. (At JSU, for instance, students now pay a $190-per-semester fee for the new $39 million rec center.) So state funding still hasn’t recovered from the recession and tuition rates have ballooned ever since and schools are installing additional fees to pay for amenities. Is that a dog chasing its tail or an acceptable give-and-take between students and universities? 

Remember why this even matters. Four-year graduates typically make more money and face fewer bouts of unemployment than those with only a high-school diploma. Though not a guarantee, a college degree remains a solid investment in a young person’s future. Considering all this, is it any wonder that the Federal Reserve System says U.S. student loan debt is now a combined $1.6 trillion?

As for the Friendliest Campus in the South, Tibbitts’ claim that JSU is “becoming not cheap” is spot-on right. JSU’s trustees share some of that blame, but there’s more than enough to go around. 

Email: ptutor@annistonstar.com


Phillip Tutor — ptutor@annistonstar.com — is a Star columnist. Follow him at Twitter.com/PTutor_Star.