Tuition increases for undergraduates attending public colleges and universities in their home states appear to be all over the map this fall.
The range so far — from no change at Maine’s community colleges to double digits at some Virginia and Arizona universities — reflect the variety of strategies schools and states are trying to balance their economic challenges with those of students and parents.
"States are starting from different places," says Julie Bell of the National Conference of State Legislatures. But in general, money for higher education "just isn’t there."
In most states, governing boards approve tuition rates for public institutions. But legislators and governors control state budgets, which influence tuition.
Missouri’s public universities, for example, agreed to freeze tuition for the second year in exchange for a promise by Gov. Jay Nixon, a Democrat, to cut budgets no more than 5.2%. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, a Republican, has proposed cutting state aid to public colleges that exceed a 4% tuition increase. He also proposes a 7.7% cut in higher education spending.
In West Virginia, public two- and four-year colleges honored a plea by Gov. Joe Manchin, a Democrat, to freeze tuition; stimulus money will replace a 5% budget cut.
Tuition freezes typically aim to ensure affordability at a time when many families are struggling. "They are putting the needs of students first," senior Antonio Cosme says of his school, Eastern Michigan University in Ypsilanti, where tuition, fees and room and board will remain unchanged this fall. The plan assumes passage of a proposed 3.1% state budget cut.
Tuition caps get mixed reviews. A freeze since 2007 at the University of Maryland state system has been praised for keeping costs down for families and blamed for limiting enrollments on some campuses. The freeze ends this year.
In 2005, Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm, a Democrat, cut $30 million in funding to the state’s 15 public universities after earlier vowing to spare those that held down increases.
"Further tuition restraint requests by the governor are respectfully declined," says Mike Boulus, executive director of the non-profit Presidents Council, State Universities of Michigan.
Sandy Baum, who tracks college costs for the non-profit College Board, says financial aid, rather than a freeze, may better help people "who have become unemployed or seen their incomes decline significantly." Despite rising sticker prices, the average net price at public four-year colleges — after grants and tax benefits — was lower last year than a decade earlier, after adjusting for inflation, her research finds.
A few states, including Texas, Virginia and Florida, have loosened legislative reins on tuition policy in recent years. At the University of Virginia, where tuition will increase 9.9% this fall, the extra revenue will go toward financial aid, academics, building maintenance and employee benefits.
That strategy, too, has raised eyebrows. In Texas, where average academic charges increased 72% from 2003 to 2009, according to data from the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board, some legislators have called for a return to tighter state regulation.
Though controversial, tuition deregulation is gaining momentum, policy analysts say. Proposals have been debated this year in New York, Louisiana, Washington state and Colorado.
"It’s been reassuring," says Daniel Hurley, director of state relations and policy analysis for the American Association of State Colleges and Universities. "Despite pressure to keep college costs at a minimum, lawmakers are recognizing the vital role tuition revenue plays in meeting rising student enrollments."