For all your fears about college, for all your worries about what might go wrong or what might cause you problems, take solace in one constant: your tuition will increase.
According to the College Board, tuition and fees at public four-year colleges increased about 5 percent more than general inflation each year over the past decade.
Students are paying more and often receiving less. Administrative positions are left vacant and programs are cut in the name of slashing operating costs. But why?
State funding of public higher education has been plummeting in recent years, say many university officials, and those gaps have to be filled somehow. Washington state legislators have cut more than $200 million from Washington State University’s funding over the past two years, which has put serious financial strains on the school, says WSU spokesman Darin Watkins.
Public higher education is a go-to area for budget cuts, says Gary Larson of the Washington State Higher Education Coordinating Board, because — unlike K-12 education — its funding is not mandated. And, traditionally, it’s politically less risky to cut higher education than to shut down prisons.
To help schools to make up the difference, legislators approved a 14-percent cap on tuition increases for public four-year institutions in 2009, Larson says, double the previous 7 percent per year.
Nearly every public college in Washington — including WSU — took advantage.
Along with state cuts, public university officials say times are changing. Students and parents are rigorously comparing schools, looking for the best features at the lowest price tag.
Employee health care costs are rising, and expensive technology is becoming a staple for quality higher education. When help from the state is nowhere to be found, those costs are passed along to students, university representatives say.
Private institutions can better fill gaping financial holes with endowments and alumni donations, assets that are traditionally not as plentiful at public universities, Watkins says.
Jim White, Gonzaga’s dean of student financial services, says his school has seen slower rates of tuition increases than some other schools. But there’s no escaping the expensive personnel costs associated with running a university.
“The biggest driver [of increased costs] is that we’re an industry with a lot of personnel and a lot of direct interaction with students,” he says. “Increases have been predominately in relation to health care, benefits and salaries for faculty.”
Keith Ickes, executive director of planning and budget at the University of Idaho, says such increases are inevitable for all universities.
“I think that we all find it would be very difficult to go back to the style of operating, the quality of programs and the types of opportunities we had 10 to 15 years ago,” Ickes says. “The combination of expectations and state funding is just going to mean that tuition bill is going to get higher.”
When tuition increases don’t solve the problem alone, institutions like WSU look to restructuring plans. Earlier this month, the university’s president announced he would cut three vice president positions and consolidate administrative departments. Things probably won’t get better any time soon, he told employees and students.
For now, public community colleges seem to be picking up the slack. There’s no way to know for sure if high tuition at four-year schools is driving students to two-year community and technical colleges, says Anne Tucker, spokeswoman for the Community Colleges of Spokane, but enrollment has continued to rise. Last year, Spokane Community College, Spokane Falls and the Institute for Extended Learning saw a 4.4 percent increase in total enrollment.
The state has cut funding to these two-year schools by $10 million over the past two years and allowed them only 7 percent tuition increases per year. Administrators have responded by leaving vacated staff positions empty and cutting some programs, including massage therapy and a subsection of the automotive program at SCC.
“We are seeing more students than we’ve ever seen at a time when students need us the most,” Tucker says. “Obviously, we’re needing to provide programs and services that have been affected by budget reductions.”
The next step for staying afloat is unclear, Tucker says. Officials from the three institutions will soon meet to discuss ways to continue cutting costs and meet the governor’s recently announced 4 percent budget cuts coming in October, she says.
With no clear solution to stay ahead of tuition inflation, students and parents simply have to find ways to save more and spend less, says Craig Holmes, vice president of DA Davidson in Spokane. Holmes, who works with parents and students on how to pay for college, says many of his clients don’t see expensive four-year institutions as worth it anymore.
“There’s only so much money, so what we have to do is look to alternative means and these alternative means are not necessarily terrible,” he says. “There’s nothing wrong with going to a community college or a state school versus a private school. It’s really about our expectations.”
Many in academia, though, argue that — no matter the price — traditional education will prove its worth in the job market … and in life.
“There’s something you get from a university that goes beyond just textbooks and teachers,” WSU’s Watkins says, citing the fact many students meet lifetime friends or future spouses during their college years. “It’s a large breadth that extends beyond just education.”