By Susan Kinzie
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 19, 2009
The University of the District of Columbia adopted a sizable tuition increase yesterday, a landmark decision that its trustees said would help build a respected public school but that many students consider a betrayal of the university's historical commitment to provide higher education for all.
The board agreed, by a 10 to 3 vote, to nearly double tuition by the fall of 2010, from $3,770 to $7,000 for District residents who are full-time, four-year students. But in a concession to students who had furiously protested the plan to boost the price of attending the city's only public university, it will phase in the price increase, adding $1,600 this fall and $1,630 the next year.
Four-year students from other parts of the area ultimately would pay $8,000, and those from beyond the region would pay $14,000.
The tuition increase, coupled with an already approved plan to split the university into two campuses and end open enrollment at the four-year school, had touched off angry protests and debate over the school's educational role and its future. It also has brought promises of greater accountability from school leaders.
Many consider this a turning point for the school, which has embodied both the District's higher education failures and the ideal of opportunity for anyone seeking higher education, regardless of income or background.
"This is not an easy decision," said James Dyke, the trustees chairman. "This university has been neglected and underfunded for a number of years."
Dissatisfied students said they would continue their opposition to the steep tuition increases.
"We're going to protest again," said Kamana Adhikari, a student from Nepal. President Allen L. Sessoms "just did some trick. He's going to increase it 100 percent anyway. We don't accept that."
Last week, about 1,000 students packed a board meeting to tell trustees that they could not afford Sessoms's proposal to nearly double tuition this fall at UDC, where nearly 6,000 are enrolled in everything from job training classes to law school. They urged the board to vote against it and signed a petition calling for Sessoms's resignation.
On Monday, after passage of the economic stimulus package by Congress, school officials announced that the board would consider the tuition plan approved yesterday and would ensure that no currently enrolled students would have to drop out because of higher costs. School officials expect an increase in operating funds from the stimulus bill, which was signed by President Obama on Tuesday.
But when Sessoms spoke yesterday about an effort to raise millions of dollars in private donations, about 100 students in the UDC auditorium rose and silently turned their backs to him. They said they were showing the same disrespect he had demonstrated to them at last week's public hearing. Student protesters said they will continue to demand changes during the 30-day comment period, after which the board will take a final vote on the measure.
In the fall, Sessoms took over a public institution that has been plagued by insufficient funding, low morale and frequent leadership changes since it was created in 1977. Last month, the board approved his sweeping conceptual plan to change direction at UDC.
Renovations and repairs have been put off for years, and student protesters have demanded that if they are asked to pay more, then crumbling steps, broken escalators and outdated labs should be fixed.
Sessoms, 61, a Yale-trained physicist, hopes that separating the university into two schools will allow improvements at both. He would establish admissions standards at the four-year university and add more rigorous academic programs, new schools and doctoral degrees. At the same time, he would create a separate two-year community college open to anyone, with tuition 30 to 40 percent less than what students pay now.
He has said the tuition increase at the four-year university could be covered by financial aid sources that students are not fully using, including local and federal grants. He has also said funding from the District has not increased in years.
"This is the easy part," Sessoms said after the vote. "We've got a decade's worth of work to do."
The trustees also approved the launch of the fundraising campaign and extended the deadline for voluntary buyouts targeted at older faculty members. Full-time faculty members who have been there 30 years or more are eligible for the buyout, which offers $45,000 or half their annual base salary, whichever is less. Administrators are uncertain how many might accept the offer.
UDC has asked the D.C. Council to consider a bill granting the school autonomy. That could save the school not only time but money, according to Sessoms, who said he has tallied $10 million that could have been saved since he arrived at the school.
"It's phenomenal how much waste happens because of the bureaucracy and lack of attentiveness," he said. He wants control of construction and repairs and to be held accountable for delays, he said, rather than relying on the city's Office of Property Management.
Later this semester, the board will consider admissions standards for the four-year university. Sessoms has recommended minimum admissions requirements of a 2.5 grade-point average and 1200 on the SAT out of a possible 2400, or a 2.0 GPA and 1400 on the SAT. Students would also be allowed to take placement tests to gain admission.