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Strategic Budget Advisory Committee (SBAC)
Strategic Budget Advisory Committee

A Tuition Tipping Point For UConn

January 31, 2009

By GRACE E. MERRITT - The Hartford Courant

For the first time in the school's history, University of Connecticut students could shoulder more of the cost of their education than the state does as the university braces for a cut of as much as 10 percent in the state budget.

The state currently pays for about 35 percent of the university's $939 million operating budget, with student tuition and fees making up about 32 percent. The rest is paid by federal grants and other sources.

UConn President Michael Hogan predicts the formula will reach a tipping point this year.

"It'll be a historic turning point for the state and the university because the university would be generating more revenue from tuition and fees than from state support," Hogan said.

While UConn may be new to this milestone, it's been happening across the country over the past 30 years, experts said. Students now pay a national average of 35 percent of the cost of their education in tuition and fees, compared with 22 percent in the 1980s, said Paul Lingenfelter, president of State Higher Education Executive Officers.

"Unfortunately that has been a trend and it's certainly an alarming trend. It is part of the broader debate of whether access to public higher education is a public good available to all citizens of the state or whether it is a private good that is to be purchased by the end consumer, being the student," said Daniel Hurley, director of state relations and policy analysis for the American Association of State Colleges and Universities.

Still, the shift at UConn has been slower than at some other colleges. At the University of Michigan, for instance, tuition accounted for 64 percent of the cost of education while state support made up 23 percent, with the rest drawn from the school's endowment and indirect research costs.

Gov. M. Jodi Rell, who will present her two-year spending plan Wednesday, has told higher education leaders to expect as much as a 10 percent cut in state spending as she deals with a crippling state budget deficit.

UConn will not announce tuition increases until a Feb. 10 board of trustees meeting. The school cannot raise tuition more than 15 percent because of a state-mandated cap. In the past 13 years, tuition has increased 94.1 percent. Tuition and fees, not including room and board, are currently $9,338 for in-state students and $24,050 for out-of-state students.

The shift in the funding equation would come during a recession that has made it harder than ever to pay for college. Banks are more reluctant to make loans, parents are getting laid off, house values are falling and UConn's endowment has lost 22 percent of its value.

"Virtually every revenue stream is shrinking at the same time," Hogan said.

The university is concerned about preserving strides it has made in the last 14 years after launching a $2.3 billion construction project that has virtually remade the campus.

Since the mid-1990s, SAT scores have risen 87 points to a combined score of 1,200 for incoming freshmen at Storrs. At the same time, UConn has risen from 38th to 26th place in U.S. News & World Report's annual ranking of public colleges and has been ranked the top public college in New England the past nine years.

"You can't let the financial crisis just hit you," Hogan said. "You have to manage it strategically so as to minimize or even avoid permanent damage to the university's core mission and key programs."

Rell has already cut UConn's budget by 3 percent this fall, which the university has absorbed by freezing many jobs and banning travel with state money, among other measures.

The university does not plan to expand enrollment to raise more money because the school has already reached its capacity. In fact, many residence halls are filled to the brim with an unexpectedly large freshman class this year, and some professors say that classes have grown over the years.

While enrollment has grown about 45 percent over the past 13 years, the faculty head count has increased by only 15 percent. As a result, the university's student-to-faculty ratio has gotten larger, going from 14-to-1 to 17-to-1, Hogan said.

In this new round of cuts, Hogan said, "Everything is on the table, but the objective is to try to preserve the quality of undergraduate education. He has appointed a committee to identify places to cut and ways to generate more revenue. Among the areas being considered are:

  • Using adjunct professors to replace full-time faculty who leave.
  • Suspending a plan to hire 35 more professors a year to improve the student/teacher ratio.
  • Temporarily suspending faculty sabbaticals.
  • Saving on printing costs by moving to online publications.
  • Freezing programs for replacing cars, buses and computers.

At the same time, Hogan has appointed another committee to find ways to shelter the university's strongest graduate and professional programs from the financial storm.

Faculty members say they are worried and wonder how the university can sustain more cuts. But they say they are buoyed by the administration's stated goal to maintain a first-rate education experience for undergraduates.

"Though everyone's worried, they are not giving up on standards," said Cyrus Ernesto Zirakzadeh, a political science professor and associate dean of UConn's College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.

"It's kind of a roller coaster every week. It's the beginning of the semester, so people are excited. They're bushy-tailed, classes are full and you see that sparkle. Then there are the moments when we see the newspapers and read about the drop in tax revenues. All along, our dream had been to move up the ranks. Now our concern is to protect what we've spent decades to develop," Zirakzadeh said.

"Higher education is often at the top of the list … when states need to cut back their budgets. It has eroded to the point where access to higher education is being compromised dramatically," Hurley said.