Published Sunday, January 13, 2013 at 1:00 am / Updated at 4:47 pm
Tuition freeze sends message

Across America, parents and students have watched the costs of college tuition rise steadily and worried whether they will be able to afford a higher education.

Thanks to a farsighted recommendation from Gov. Dave Heineman, Nebraska can take a big step toward maintaining affordability.

Heineman is proposing a two-year tuition freeze for in-state students in the University of Nebraska and Nebraska State College systems. Both NU and the state college system have joined in a proposed compact to enable the freeze, which would be the first in years.

The governor says his budget will call for boosting the University of Nebraska’s state appropriations from the current level of $498 million to $541 million in fiscal year 2015. That’s an 8.6 percent increase over the two-year period. The state college system’s funding would rise from the current $45.5 million to $49.6 million, a 9.1 percent increase. NU President J.B. Milliken correctly calls that additional money “a strong commitment from the state.”

Should the Legislature agree to provide the new spending and the tuition freeze be implemented, the average university undergraduate would save $1,000 over two years, Milliken said. State College Chancellor Stan Carpenter said the freeze would mean total annual savings of more than $1 million for state college students.

“In Nebraska, we understand that education is the great equalizer, and that’s why education is a priority for me,” Heineman said.

Halting the upward tuition trend is a bold step that could be the envy of states from coast to coast.

The tuition freeze would provide some relief to students and parents. It also would draw national attention to how Nebraska, in contrast to so many other states, is standing up for the importance of an affordable college education. A few other states are currently considering a similar move.

A recent Wall Street Journal article examined the financial pressures on the nation’s public universities and the worrisome trend of rising tuition costs. From 2000 to 2010, the Journal reported, tuition, adjusted for inflation, rose an average of 45 percent at public universities.

Colorado offers dramatic examples. From 2006 to 2012, the Journal noted, tuition and fees (not inflation-adjusted) were up 68 percent at the University of Colorado at Boulder. At Colorado State, they rose by some 81 percent.

That compares with 36 percent at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and 31 percent at the University of Iowa. Figures for the 2006-to-2012 period at other public universities include Illinois-Urbana-Champaign and Minnesota (47 percent each) and Kansas (57 percent).

“This can’t go on forever,” NU Regent Chuck Hassebrook told The World-Herald, referring to the escalating costs for students and parents. “We have to confront this reality.”

Even with tuition rising rapidly, many cash-strapped states still have reduced their spending on public universities. From 2000 to 2010, state appropriations to the nation’s 678 public colleges and universities fell by 21 percent. All of that shifts more of the costs to students and their families.

It is greatly encouraging, then, that Heineman is proposing to break that pattern. The governor and Legislature already have demonstrated commendable determination to keep financial support for NU from plummeting — even in the face of the recent recession. While tuition has continued to rise and spending cuts were needed, the state has admirably held the line in its commitment to higher education.

All this said, it’s also true that members of the Legislature will need to weigh the proposed increased higher ed spending against all the competing demands on the state’s two-year budget.

Hassebrook, who is leaving the Board of Regents after 18 years, explains that public universities tend to get caught up in a kind of spending arms race that puts upward pressure on tuition rates.

“Students get caught in the middle of a struggle for prestige to recruit star faculty or research dollars or draw the best national rankings,” he said. “But at the end of the day, it’s the student who ends up paying for it.”

Hassebrook praised Milliken for being attentive to holding down tuition increases as much as possible and emphasizing the need for adequate financial aid for students. Milliken, Hassebrook said, is right that the appropriate way to judge the value of the University of Nebraska is “to measure its service to the state.”

One component of that service is affordability. Unfortunately in much of the country, Hassebrook says, “that’s been lost at many land-grant universities.”

The governor notes that Nebraska needs more college graduates to meet 21st-century work force needs and keep its economy growing.

If the state can find the funds to make the proposed tuition freeze fiscally doable, Nebraska can send the right message on college affordability.

Gov. Heineman deserves praise for his vision on this issue.

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