Prices spike at public universities, except in Maryland

December 28, 2012

Steep declines in public funding for higher education over the past five years have forced most state universities across the country to jack up tuition and fees.

Not in Maryland.

The posted price of attending the University of Maryland and other state universities has risen 2 percent for in-state students since 2007 after adjusting for inflation — the lowest rate of increase in the nation for four-year public institutions, the College Board said in a recent report.

In Virginia, in-state tuition and fees at public universities during the same period rose 29 percent. The national average was 27 percent, with the highest rates of increase in California (72 percent) and Arizona (78 percent).

Facing a fiscal crisis after a recession that began in late 2007, many states slashed funding for higher education to preserve money for public safety, health, elementary and secondary education, and other services. The thinking was that public colleges could tap other revenue sources — chiefly, tuition — to fill the void.

Now, as public universities have grown more expensive, their leaders are intensifying efforts to contain what they spend and what they charge. At stake, they say, is the very mission of institutions that aim to offer high-quality academics to all classes of society.

“The opportunity of higher education could soon be out of reach of many people if we’re not careful in how we manage this,” said E. Joseph Savoie, president of the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. In-state tuition and fees rose at least 10 percent this year at his school and several others in Louisiana. Fees are mandatory charges for various campus services and activities but don’t include housing, food and books. The price, about $5,400 a year at UL Lafayette, is still relatively inexpensive. But Savoie said he worries that public universities are “moving toward a private-school model.”

How was Maryland able to buck the trend? State university leaders say that for most of the decade, they have sought to bolster productivity and rein in costs, an efficiency campaign that paid dividends in Annapolis. The state government provided enough funding to freeze in-state tuition for four years, starting in 2006, and limit the increases in ensuing years.

Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) championed the freeze. But William E. “Brit” Kirwan, chancellor of the University System of Maryland, said the efficiency drive also earned the schools credibility with O’Malley’s Republican predecessor, Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. At one point several years ago, Kirwan said, faculty were asked to increase the average time spent with students by 10 percent.

“That got people’s attention,” Kirwan said. “At the time, Bob Ehrlich was the governor. He was mightily impressed.” Ehrlich and the Democratic-led legislature agreed on a tuition freeze in early 2006.

“Maryland is very fortunate,” said Freeman Hrabowski III, president of the University of Maryland Baltimore County. “Our elected officials get it.”

Today, annual tuition and fees for in-state students at the U-Md. flagship in College Park total $8,908.

That draws the attention of parents, including Sharifa Wellman of Montgomery County. Her daughter, Stephanie Brown, 17, a senior at Poolesville High School, is applying to U-Md. as well as the University of Miami and Syracuse, Northwestern and New York universities.

Tuition and fees at those selective private schools are more than four times those at College Park.

Wellman and her husband, who own a kitchen and bath remodeling business, also have two younger children. They are deeply conscious of college expenses. Wellman said she and her husband offered to buy Stephanie a good used car if she gets into College Park and chooses to go there.

Wellman said Stephanie joked that the offer was “a bribe.” Wellman emphasized that she wants her daughter to be happy, whatever her choice.

“I want her to be excited about where she’s going, because then she will do well,” Wellman said. But, she added: “We have to look at this holistically as a family — what’s going to work for us — because of the sticker price of going to these schools. We don’t have unlimited funds.”

For consumers, the posted tuition is only part of the equation. Many students get scholarships, for need or for academic merit. But relentless price growth at the nation’s public universities, greater over the past 10 years than in either of the previous two decades, has touched a political nerve.

One governor has proposed a radical shift.

In Texas, Gov. Rick Perry (R) is pushing public colleges to offer a bachelor’s degree for a total of $10,000. Many leaders in higher education call that four-year price untenable for universities that want to maintain high standards for research and teaching. Texans pay nearly that much now for one year of tuition and fees at the University of Texas at Austin. But Perry said a $10,000 degree will help more students get “where they want to go in their careers and their lives.”

At the University of Washington, where in-state tuition and fees are about $12,400 a year, College Board data show that prices have gone up 77 percent over five years. Increases of that magnitude, by no means unique to that university, call into question how long the nation’s premier state flagship universities will be able to offer top-flight education at an affordable price.

UW President Michael K. Young said state funding was cut in half in just three years. “We have seen that dramatic decline at a moment when the importance of higher education has also gone through the roof,” he said. Increases in tuition and fees at his school, he said, have not offset lost state revenue. The university has tried various strategies, including admitting more out-of-state students, who pay higher tuition.

Still, Young said, prices cannot continue to rise at such a clip. “It absolutely is not sustainable,” he said.

In Virginia, price increases at public colleges and universities this year were the lowest in a decade. Tuition and fees for in-state students rose 3.3 percent at the College of William and Mary, to $13,570, and 3.7 percent at the University of Virginia, to $12,006.

Taylor Reveley, president of William and Mary, said that a generation ago, the state provided more than 40 percent of the college’s operating costs. “It’s now less than 13 percent,” Reveley said, “and headed south.”

Dwindling state support and a cap on out-of-state enrollment have forced the college to seek new sources of revenue, he said. One answer is private fundraising. Another is efficiency.

“We’re already pretty productive,” Reveley said, “but we’ve got to get more productive. At the core, we’ve got to figure out how to keep teaching splendidly and do meaningful research — but at a lower cost.”

A former Post education editor, Nick writes about college from the perspective of a father of three who will soon be buried in tuition bills.
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