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Universities, lawmakers consider capping tuition prices

10:44 AM, May 8, 2013   |    comments
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Sounds like a case of academic Freaky Friday: College students push for higher tuition prices, while lawmakers attempt to reverse the trend of rising college costs.

But it's no movie plot in Wisconsin. Last week, the University of Wisconsin-Stout's Student Association unanimously passed a resolution calling for a 2% increase in tuition prices. The student government's support for the slight hike comes after Gov. Scott Walker urged the Legislature to freeze tuition at all public universities in the Badger State.

"On the surface, a tuition freeze can sound like a good thing," said Juliana Lucchesi, a senior at UW-Stout and president of the Student Association. "But when we started looking at the numbers, we realized what we could lose if it goes into effect."

And it's not just Wisconsin. Across the country, legislators from both sides of the aisle are considering tuition freezes. The concept is simple: Hold a public college's tuition steady over a given number of years, usually two or four. In other words, state lawmakers impose a 0% increase on tuition sticker prices, forcing institutions and sometimes the legislatures to reconsider their budgets for higher education.

Reactions by states to tuition freezes have varied. On April 3, a group of students from the University of Iowa headed to the state Capitol building in Des Moines, pushing legislators to impose a tuition freeze.

"Our priority is to keep tuition affordable," said Katherine Valde, a junior at the University of Iowa, who led the UI lobbying effort.

Like other public universities, the University of Iowa has dealt with decreasing state funding for the college, with a 25.3% drop in state support since 2006. In order to keep the school competitive, Valde says, the financial burden has shifted from state to student, as tuition prices increase to make up for lost funding.

"It's time we reverse that trend," Valde said. "Freezing tuition would mean students could rely less on loans for not only tuition, but textbooks and rent. It's a good option for us."

But, according to higher education experts, what works for some may not work for all. "It's conceivable to think of cases where tuition freezing might work," said David Strauss, a principal with the Arts & Sciences Group, a consulting firm that specializes in higher education funding.

So in the case of Iowa, where students anticipate state funding to make up for lost revenues from tuition freezes, the policy might keep both the university and students afloat. But if the university can't rely on additional funding or their own reserves, Strauss says, there may be trouble.

"It's one thing if there's a lot of fat in these schools' budgets," Strauss said. "But over the past decade, much of that fat has been trimmed out."

So while the UW-system has recently been criticized by state lawmakers for its nearly $1 billion dollars in state reserve funds, UW-Stout doesn't see much of that funding. On Tuesday, Stout's chancellor, Charles Sorensen, said that the Menomonie campus receives only about $17.6 million of that total - about 1.7%.

"We have a lean budget at Stout," Luchessi said. And in the face of already low faculty funding - UW-Stout professors haven't seen a raise since 2007 - Luchessi says students recognize their role in maintaining a quality education.

"While a tuition freeze might not have the biggest impact on students, it has a big impact on programming here," she said. "It's a small campus, so we feel the pain of losing a research professor or organization."

Others argue that a freeze on college tuition might end up helping politicians more than students.

"Politically, a call for tuition freezing is a powerful message," said Joni Finney, the director of the Institute for Research on Higher Education at the University of Pennsylvania. "While it signals support for students and their families, in practice we see increases in tuition later down the road to make up for the freeze."

Instead of the freeze, Finney recommends tuition rates based on the median family incomes of students, rather than looking at tuition based on state funding or university reserves.

"We need policy that considers who needs to be taught and what they can afford," Finney said.

In an earlier version of this article, Juliana Lucchesi's last name and Joni Finney's first name were misspelled. The university where Finney works, the University of Pennsylvania, was also misstated. The corrections have been made in the article.

Melanie Kruvelis, USA TODAY Collegiate Correspondent

USA Today / Gannett

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